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Breaking the Peninsula Deadlock

Nov 30, 2021
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a trend of peace and development in the world. However, the negative effects have lingered on the Korean Peninsula, which remains a security hotspot for East Asia and the world. The peninsula continues to suffer from the North-South split, the long-standing hostility between the DPRK on one side and the United States and the Republic of Korea on the other, and by the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program and the resulting nuclear crises. These problems have brought serious military security risks to the peninsula and more broadly to northeastern Asia.

Since the first nuclear crisis in 1992, the parties concerned have held various dialogues and negotiations with the DPRK, including bilateral, four-party and six-party versions, all of which ended in failure and formed a vicious circle of crisis-dialogue-agreement-failure-crisis. At the heart of the failure are the extreme lack of mutual trust between the U.S. and the DPRK, the great divergence in the definition of peninsular denuclearization, the road map and timetable for denuclearization and a peace mechanism and the high vigilance of the DPRK against the so-called Libya model.

Compared with the high tensions that occurred repeatedly before, the situation on the peninsula has been relatively calm in the past two years. However, none of the many problems have been solved, which is worrying.

First, although “double suspensions” have been maintained on the peninsula since the fruitless Hanoi summit in 2019, denuclearization dialogues have all been stopped, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden administration’s proposal to resume dialogue unconditionally and its new policy announced in May were publicly criticized by the DPRK. The Korean leader vowed to never engage in dialogue with the U.S. again unless the latter completely abandons its hostility.

Second, the DPRK, which already crossed the nuclear threshold, continues to develop its nuclear forces and strives for a de facto nuclear power status similar to that of India and Pakistan. It proposed a new strategic line in 2018. In 2020, however, Kim Jong-un revived the parallel development policy, which combined the economy with a nuclear program. At the eighth KWP congress in January, he announced an ambitious plan for a nuclear future. In this context, a growing voice in the world has been asking: is it still possible for the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program?

Third, the DPRK has so far maintained its basic political stability, but its economic development faces serious difficulties. Failure of the domestic economic system and severe international sanctions are the main causes. The COVID-19 pandemic and severe natural disasters have only made things worse.

Fourth, the peninsula and Northeast Asia remain under the shadow of nuclear proliferation, military confrontation and an arms race. In May, the U.S. gave the green light to the ROK to develop its missiles; in August, the two conducted joint military exercises targeting the DPRK; and in September, the North and the South both conducted new ballistic missile test launches. If this situation does not change, the DPRK may well conduct new nuclear and missile tests and the ROK and Japan may further expand their arms. This is the domino effect of DPRK’s nuclear ambition. 

Fifth, there were some signs of a thaw in North-South relations at the end of September. The DPRK announced the resumption of communication with the South, and expressed its readiness to discuss, under certain conditions, a declaration to end the state of war. But the ROK’s proposal for an end-of-war declaration did not get a warm response from the U.S., and the resumption of North-South dialogue remains fraught.

Sixth, the serious deterioration of China-U.S. relations has greatly weakened the willingness of the big powers to cooperate on issues related to the peninsula. Addressing the nuclear issue is not a current priority for either country.

In short, if the current stalemate is not changed, a new crisis will arise sooner or later. To avoid the recurrence of tensions on the peninsula, China and the U.S. should play their part as major powers, narrow their differences and work for an early resumption of cooperation on peninsula denuclearization. Here are my ideas on how:

1. China and the U.S. should jointly declare through a high-level dialogue that the settlement of the peninsula issue is an important area of cooperation, not competition or confrontation. To this end, the U.S. must stop suppressing China in many different areas as it seeks China’s support on the peninsula.

2. China and the U.S. should jointly push for the resumption of bilateral dialogue on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula under the precondition of upholding the two suspensions. They should give special support to the resumption of North-South dialogue to relax and develop their relations. Unification of the peninsula should eventually be achieved by the DPRK and ROK independently and peacefully.

3. China and the U.S. should agree on the basic policies for denuclearization of the peninsula. These include:

• Adhering to the goal of denuclearization without wavering;

• Resolving the nuclear issue through peaceful dialogue rather than resorting to the use of force;

• Addressing the legitimate security concerns of all parties in a balanced manner and promoting in parallel denuclearization and a peace mechanism;

• Handling the matter with a packaged solution to be implemented in phases and with simultaneous actions.

4. China, the U.S., the DPRK and the ROK should first make major efforts to end the state of war on the peninsula and jointly put forward a road map for the denuclearization of the peninsula. The four-party talks should be gradually developed into six-parties.

5. The important role of the UN Security Council in resolving nuclear issues should always be respected and used. A priority is to explore how to implement the reversible provisions of UN sanctions, which could be a key to restarting dialogue on the peninsula.

6. In the process of denuclearization, China and the U.S. must work hard to safeguard the strategic stability between them, including crisis stability.

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