The year 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the Korean War in 1950. Seventy years have passed since the war, and it has been almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War system that caused the division of the Korean Peninsula, but peace has not been established on the Korean Peninsula, and the Cold War continues in progress. In both South and North Korea, large-scale military drills are still held every year. Both countries develop and import various conventional or new weapons. Peace is mankind’s long-cherished desire. Especially for those living on the Korean Peninsula, achieving peace is an earnest wish.
Looking at the recent inter-Korean relations, events such as the Panmunjom Declaration, the first-ever US-North Korea summit, the Singapore-North Korea-US Summit, and the Pyongyang Joint Declaration took place in 2018, starting with North Korea’s participation in the Pyeong Chang Olympics. There seemed to be a hope that North Korea could also make concessions on nuclear weapons, but as 2019 and 2020 pass, the hope is changing to disappointment. Inter-Korean dialogue has been stalled. Especially in 2020, due to the outbreak of the Covid19, which shut down the North altogether.
- Inter-Korean and North-US relations
Early in 2020, with inter-Korean relations stalled after the Hanoi No Deal, the South Korean government’s willingness to “re-start” was very firm. Unlike 2019, in which the South Korean government held back expecting the progress in US-North Korea relations, the government tried to take a step forward. The government brought up an idea to pursue an inter Korean cooperation project without violating sanctions against North Korea, represented by “individual tourism.” Moon Jae-in, the President, mentioned this in his New Year’s press conference. He said, “I think individual tours can be fully explored because they do not violate international sanctions.”
In line with these policies, the government delivered three specific measures to the North: overland tours, tours through third countries, and foreign tours linking Pyongyang and Seoul. However, given the cold inter-Korean relations, it was difficult to expect a North Korean answer.
Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un, who had visited Mount Geumgang in October 2019, ordered the removal of the South Korean facilities, which have been neglected for 11 years. The North later sent an ultimatum saying, “The deadline for demolition is by the end of February.” In other words, the South Korean government proposed individual tours at a time when it was at odds with the North over the removal of the South Korean facilities at Mount Geumgang.
To respond to the South Korea’s proposal, the North replied, “Inter-Korean cooperation, such as individual tourism, may not be achieved in the presence of the US” A South Korean government official said, “The North has responded positively or negatively. Rather than a flag, it meant that they suspected South Korea would be able to handle the opposition of the US. The South Korean government tried to reiterate its position that “individual tourism is an issue that can be carried out independently from the United States.” However, no more conversations could have been made due to Covid 19. Both Koreas were busy responding to Covid 19, so no dialogue progressed.
Inter-Korean relations began to deteriorate again around May with the spread of anti-North leaflets by human rights groups. On June 4, 2020, Deputy Minister Kim Yeo-Jung of North Korea said in a statement, “If you leave it as freedom of expression, you will have to look at the worst situation.” She mentioned the possibility of shutting down the South-North Joint Liaison Office, removing the Gaesong Industrial Complex, and scrapping the military agreement.
On June 16, 2020, North Korea finally blew up the joint liaison office in Gaeseong, and the video of the bombing shocked the public. North Korea also cut off its military communication line. Moreover, in September 2020, an official of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries was brutally shot and killed by North Korean soldiers. WIth Covid19 and back-to-back negative events, inter-Korean relations have rarely made a breakthrough in 2020. On the other hand, South Korea has made and passed a law banning propaganda leaflets, drawing intense international criticism.
In terms of North-US relations, the US administration of Joe Biden will be launched on January 20, 2021. The keynote of Biden’s North Korea policy is still unclear. Experts say that the Joe Biden administration’s North Korea policy will adopt a bottom-up policy decision rather than a top-down policy. According to KB Research Center, unlike the Trump administration, which advocated “America First,” the Biden administration would put forward the traditional US diplomatic strategy that values alliance and multilateralism.
North Korea stopped nuclear weapons tests during the Trump era. It has shown its willingness to negotiate while refraining from missile tests. In the speech by First Vice Minister Kim Yeo-Jung, North Korea made it clear that its willingness to denuclearize remains, and Chairman Kim Jong-un sent the letter of consolation to Trump in hopes of a full recovery of the Trump couple, who were confirmed to be Covid 19.
Unlike the Trump administration, which has concurrently engaged in negotiations and pressure policies, the Biden administration launch, which will induce denuclearization through pressure through sanctions, could certainly impose some restrictions on inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations. The institute also predicted that North Korea, which has sealed off the border with Covid 19, may join hands with South Korea and the United States due to economic and quarantine difficulties.
North Korea will be engrossed in thorough Biden research in preparation for negotiations with its 46th President over the next four years on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Chairman Kim Jong-un is expected to keep an eye on the Biden administration’s North Korea policy at least until the eighth party congress in January next year and thoroughly prepare strategies for the US
- Will North Korea’s economy be able to sustain itself?
In his first public speech since taking power in April 2012, North Korean Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un vowed not to make the North Korean people to tighten the belt anymore. He emphasized that he would improve people’s lives by restoring the planned economic structure, which is the core of the socialist economic system.
Since then, the five-year strategy has emerged as the biggest task and core agenda of the North Korean economy and emphasized the path of economic construction and nuclear power. To this end, the North Korean authorities proposed four leading sectors: electricity, coal, metal, and railway transportation, and each sector, including agriculture, fisheries, light industry, and external economic relations, was given its own tasks. In particular, the government emphasized the resolution of power problems such as power plant repair, construction, and power grid renovation as a prerequisite. They also emphasized the improvement of the self-reliant trade structure, economic development zones, and tourism business.
Five years later, however, North Korea’s economic achievement is disastrous. According to the “Major statistical indicators of North Korea” published by the South Korean National Statistical Office, most of the four leading sectors have made little progress or regressed more than 20 to 30 years ago, the amount of electricity that was emphasized as the biggest challenge was 24.9 billion kWh as of 2018, below 27.7 billion kWh in 1990. According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), North Korea’s exports also hit $261 million in 2019, down one-seventh of the $4.5 billion recorded four years ago, and its total trade volume with China plunged 67 percent to $412 million in the first half of last year. Global economic analysis consulting firm Fitch Solutions said in a recent report that North Korea’s economic growth rate for this year will be at its worst -8.5 percent, lower than the -6.5 percent recorded in 1997, when millions of people were reportedly starved to death.
The fundamental problem of North Korea’s extreme economic pain is that it insists on a socialist-style self-reliance economic system that is far from the international trend and prolonged sanctions due to the North’s nuclear capability. Experts say it will be difficult for North Korea to maintain its current closed economic system. It is said that it will be harder than the “March of hardship” in the future.
The marketization has changed the consciousness and behavior of North Koreans. They may not have realized the cause of the “march of hardship,” but now they know why the economy is difficult and why they are being sanctioned. If the growth rate is below -5 percent next year, it will be difficult to endure without outside support. However, whether large-scale outside aid is available depends on progress in denuclearizing North Korea.
- Is South Korea’s nuclear armament realistic?
In the mid-1990s, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was unveiled to the world. The nuclear armament of South Korea has been constantly mentioned in South Korea’s diplomatic strategy discourse, although it may be accompanied by pending issues. So far, there are three methods of nuclear armament in South Korea. Independent nuclear armament, tactical nuclear deployment, and possession of potential nuclear capabilities.
1) Independent Nuclear Armament
International political scientists and former soldiers/officials who have argued the need for this option often quote Hans Morgenthau, an international political scientist, who said, “The only option a country without nuclear weapons can choose against a country with nuclear weapons is death and surrender.” Under the US-led non-proliferation regime, however, it is difficult for South Korea to make a choice to pursue its own nuclear weapons development/production. There is a high possibility that the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) will impose sanctions, and if it stops supplying medical materials that become nuclear materials, there will be a big problem in the medical sector. The problems arising when the fuel supply to nuclear power plants is cut off are also quite serious. It is very difficult to pursue nuclear armament even at the risk of these political costs in advanced democracies such as South Korea, which values the welfare of its people. The opportunity cost of nuclear armament would be very high.
2) US tactical nuclear weapons redeployment to the Korean Peninsula
Considering the high hurdles of its own nuclear armament option, US tactical nuclear weapons redeployment to the Korean Peninsula is a kind of compromise between a US-led non-proliferation regime and South Korea’s limited use of nuclear weapons within the framework of the Korea-US alliance. The US Air Force’s tactical nuclear weapons are deployed in various parts of Europe, and the idea is to escalate the US-Korea coalition to model on NATO-style nuclear sharing, which NATO’s European member states jointly operate.
There is an opinion that this NATO model is realistic compared to its own nuclear armament. Nevertheless, as General Bell, the former commander of the US Forces Korea, stated, there is also a voice that bringing tactical nuclear weapons into the country will do more harm than good. According to such opinion, the US military does not disclose the location of tactical nuclear weapons in its policy, and from a military perspective, it is more effective to keep them out of the country than to place them inside potential battle zones.
Considering the diplomatic repercussions that occurred when the South Korean government decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in 2016, it is expected that the re-introduction of tactical nuclear weapons, an offensive weapon, will have a greater negative impact.
3) Nuclear latency
It is another compromise between the first and second options, but studies show that having a potential nuclear capability (i.e., nuclear latency)does not reduce the possibility of becoming a target of a militarized international dispute. The deterrent effect of potential nuclear capability has not been statistically demonstrated. The study also suggests that countries with potential nuclear capabilities are likely to provoke more military disputes against other countries, withdraw military aid from the US, or be subject to economic sanctions imposed by the US. Having a potential nuclear capability may increase the risk of a preventive strike from neighbouring countries before the country reaches the threshold of having substantial nuclear capabilities.
In conclusion, South Korea’s nuclear armament is a potential threat to peace, but it runs counter to denuclearization and peacekeeping.
- What are the avenues for North Korea?
It is an unwavering agreement of the US Congress that sanctions cannot be lifted unless there are meaningful denuclearization steps by North Korea. The US demands the actual entry of denuclearization, including the dismantlement of additional nuclear facilities outside and inside of Yongbyon, the declaration of North Korean nuclear facilities, submission of a roadmap for verification of nuclear facilities, and the dismantlement of ICBMs. Without the acceptance of these demands, it would be difficult for the US to first shift its stance toward easing sanctions. In addition, it does not seem that North Korea may take a forward-looking attitude first, considering its position so far.
What options are left for North Korea? Earlier this year, North Korea hinted at the possibility of resuming nuclear and ICBM tests, citing a “new path” that it could no longer stop nuclear tests. It’s a brinkmanship tactic. However, the year 2020 passed without major clashes. If North Korea’s realistic possible tactics are not brinkmanship, the easiest thing the North Korean regime can take for the time being will not be much different from what it showed in 2019 after the collapse of the Hanoi talks. By talking about the resumption of nuclear and ICBM tests and actually taking good actions to avoid immediate resistance from the United Nations or the United States and returning to hard-line policies, North Korea is prolonging the US-North Korea dialogue without completely breaking the plate. In addition to the US, it will also try to ease the aftermath of economic sanctions as much as possible by cooperating with South Korea, China, and Russia.
- What we have to do through solidarity with the international community
The door to peace and denuclearization progress on the Korean Peninsula has not yet been completely closed, but a belief that a single game will dispel all problems at once would be an illusion. In the midst of conflict and arms competition in East Asia, which is gradually entering a new stage, there will be a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and the crisis on the East Asian crisis and the crisis on the Korean Peninsula will intensify by interacting. It would be an unrealistic wish that North Korea would naturally give up its nuclear weapons and open its doors when South Korea and the international community do nothing.
Peace will require, among other things, a change in the political status and consciousness of North Koreans tamed by the dictatorship in the closed and anti-democratic North. This should not be done only by South Korea’s efforts, but the international community should constantly demand North Korea to join forces to provide appropriate information and open a channel for its people to communicate with the outside world. Furthermore, more countries should join and ratify the Nuclear Non-Nuclearization Treaty. Denuclearization does not mean that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program alone. The international community should continue to make efforts until the day when all countries give up their nuclear weapons.
- Human Rights Improvement and Democratization in North Korea
North Korea has never given up hereditary dictatorship and totalitarianism in the past few decades. Paradoxically, the more such totalitarianism and hereditary dictatorship are maintained, the more politically stable they may appear. However, the dictatorship and totalitarianism are, in the end, only stability in the direction of maintaining vested interests, and the survival and human rights of citizens are violated under it. The North Korean regime’s oppression and control of its intelligence seem to be suppressing its people, but they don’t seem to know that it is suppression.
Therefore, the international community should help ordinary North Koreans, although gradually, realize that what is wrong is wrong and long for freedom and human rights. The international community, including South Korea, needs to make a strong call for North Korean authorities to improve the human rights and quality of life of North Koreans while actively seeking efforts to improve their awareness of democracy.
As seen in the former Soviet Union, East Germany, Romania, Albania, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, dictators are bound to perish in accordance with the great flow of the international community by citizens eager for freedom and democracy. The international community should help North Korean citizens fight for freedom, human rights, and survival.
Whether it changes from top to bottom, North Korea must go to democratization through decentralism and de-dictatorship, and the democratization direction is North Korea’s avenue for its survival. It will eventually serve as a basis for denuclearization and peace. As long as the dictatorship is maintained, even if Kim Jong Un’s regime opens its doors, it will not be a desirable opening unless the quality of life of its people improves. From the universal perspective of human history, de-totalitarianism, anti-dictatorialism, the opening of North Korea’s reform will make a decisive contribution to achieving peace through the improvement of North Koreans’ human rights and right to live.
- World Cooperation Movement: Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), passed at the UN General Assembly in July 2017, was the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons with the aim of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide. The Treaty completely prohibits member states from developing, testing, producing, stockpiling, delivering, using, and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. It overcomes the limitations of the NPT system, which is said to have failed to enforce nuclear disarmament of nuclear power. The Nuclear Non-Nuclearization Treaty requires signatures and ratification by at least 50 countries, which will officially take effect in January 2021, with Honduras signing for the 50th time in December 2020.
With the North Korean nuclear crisis, South Korea’s nuclear armament theory, and the intensifying arms race in East Asia, it is imperative that the material conditions of the war be restricted. The effectuation of the Nuclear Non-Nuclearization Treaty could be the cutting of the gordian knot.
However, the US, the U.K., France, China, Russia, and the actual nuclear weapons states (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) are boycotting the TPNW. South Korea and Japan, under the US nuclear umbrella, also opposed the Treaty, based on the ‘nuclear threat from North Korea.’ Various efforts are called for to increase trust between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear states. In particular, if trust between countries is formed between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states, the possibility of nuclear weapons states participating in renegotiations over the TPNW will increase.
Under these circumstances, the movement to urge South Korea to ratify the TPNW will be a major step toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the realization of a peace treaty by popularizing anti-nuclear peace ideology, criticizing both South Korea’s nuclear armament and North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The ripple effect would be significant if South Korea, a party to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and a nuclear umbrella state of the United States, signs the Treaty.
Individual or joint efforts by NGOs to create a “world without nuclear weapons” are also very important. The public movement regarding nuclear weapons will raise awareness widely about the harmfulness and illegality of nuclear weapons and secure the support of future generations on the legitimacy of the world without nuclear weapons.
The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. During the Korean War, the US administration of Truman and Eisenhower reportedly seriously considered dropping atomic bombs on the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Today, 70 years after the Korean War stopped, an end to nuclear threats should be achieved on the Korean Peninsula, just as the end of the Cold War was declared in 1989 without gunfire.
If we continue our anti-nuclear campaign by promoting the improvement of human rights and democratic awareness of North Koreans through international solidarity, calling for the ratification of the nuclear prohibition treaty, North Korea’s tightly closed mind will open someday. Such efforts will serve as an opportunity to reflect on the past and move toward the future.
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