What had been a frozen relationship on the Korean Peninsular and including Japan and China in northeast Asia for a half century has rather suddenly come unhinged.
And U.S. President Donald Trump preparing for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, accepting Kim’s professions of willingness to negotiate a new relationship, has already run into new obstacles.
Kim’s offer to reveal details of his heavy weapons armaments – including nukes – suddenly turned sour as the U.S. and its South Korea [and its Japanese ally] found an undeclared site serving as the headquarters of one of North Korea ’s ballistic missile programs.
Behind the breakup of the previous Cold War lineup on the Peninsula – a result of the armistice for there has been no peace treaty in the Korean War [25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953] – were the growing demands placed on China as a result of the U.S. and international sanctions against Pyongyang. Although the North Korean regime has managed to reach black market sources for trade, it has depended heavily on Chinese economic aid. This burden has come into sharper focus as a result of a rapidly slowing Chinese economy, one of the principle features of the present East Asia scene.
The discovery has put into question North Korea’s intentions as officials met under Swedish auspices to discuss the arrangements for Kim’s second meeting with Trump, expected to take place near the end of February, possibly in Vietnam. The two leaders made little progress during their first summit in Singapore last June. But they did sign a vaguely-worded statement committing Pyongyang to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in exchange for security guarantees from Washington.
A demilitarized zone has served as a buffer between the two Koreas since their three-year war ended in an uneasy truce in July 1953. Before the conflict, the peninsula had been roughly divided along the 38th parallel by the US and the Soviet Union at the end of the second world war. Sixty years after war , the two countries remain divided, a 2.5-mile wide and 155-mile-long strip of land centered on the “truce village” of Panmunjom.
Missile bases would be part of any agreement committing North Korea to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization promised in the earlier conference’s conclusive statement. Located 132 miles north of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas , the Sino-ri complex is a seven-square-mile base that houses a regiment-sized unit equipped with Nodong-1 medium-range missiles.
It looks like the North is playing a familiar game in which they would still have all this operational capability even if they destroy their disclosed nuclear facilities.
The revelation suggests the U.S. has been naïve in its assumption that North Korea – and its Chinese and Russian sponsors – were ready to make a comprehensive deal to begin a truce leading to reunification of the Peninsula. The negotiations for a reunited Korean state have been under the auspices and pushed by Sweden. The Swedes are notorious, of course, for such attempted mediation roles – but too often without the military guarantees which made them acceptable to the U.S.
Washington’s leverage with Pyongyang, backed by severe sanctions, has been eroded by the aggressive appeasement policies of the leftist government of President Moon Jae-In in Seoul which has treated seriously the North’s overtures for reunification. China and North Korea, meanwhile, have worked continuously to split the critical Seoul-Tokyo-Washington strategic alliance.
South Korean conservatives, pointing to the U.S. military pullout from Syria, worry that the Trump administration will withdraw U.S. forces from the South as part of a deal with North Korea and China. North Korea is using the tug-of-war between the U.S. and South Korea over sharing costs for U.S. Forces in Korea as leverage to strengthen its argument that the South should unite with the North to fight against foreign powers.
Despite 10 rounds of negotiations led by veteran diplomats last year, the U.S. and South Korea failed to reach an agreement on the level of cost sharing. An editorial in the official North Korean newspaper argues that the U.S. demand for an increase in South Korea’s share of defense costs runs counter to the current tension-easing atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. Under such conditions, the editorial said, “it is anachronistic to demand the increase of defense costs contribution by imposing the costs of the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.”