Hyon Song-wol (front, center), head of an advance team of a North Korean orchestra , leads her team in checking the venue and audio equipment in Seoul on January 21. North Korea sent an orchestra to South Korea ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang (XINHUA)
Tension on the Korean Peninsula seemed to ease as the New Year came, and momentum began to build in the long stalled bilateral ties between the two Korean states. Seizing the diplomatic opportunity presented by the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in South Korea's Pyeongchang city, high-level dialogues were convened in early January by the two sides over the possible measures that can be taken to thaw the icy relationship between the two nations.
During the talks, consensus was reached to promote the spirit of a unified Korean nation at this Olympic Games through certain specific and unprecedented arrangements. Both nations decided to hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang prior to the opening ceremony and train their skiers together at the Masikryong ski resort. North Korea also agreed to send a large delegation including 230 cheerleaders and 140 performers, and athletes of both countries will march under a single flag representing the whole Korean Peninsula during the opening ceremony of the games.
According to a joint press release, further talks are being planned to "ease military tensions" and agreements have been made to "facilitate contact, exchange and cooperation in several fields to establish reconciliation and the unity of the people." They also agreed to respect the inter-Korean declarations, committing to resolve the issues of Korean relations through dialogue and negotiations directly among concerning parties. Obviously, both the South and North are hoping to reach rapprochement through the opportunity presented by these Olympic Games.
However, while things seemed to be heading in a favorable direction on the Korean Peninsula, discord began to emerge elsewhere. On January 16, a meeting of 20 nations seeking to maintain international pressure on North Korea was held in Vancouver at the behest of the U.S. and Canada. Most of the participants were allies of the U.S. during the Korean War, but China and Russia, the two parties most directly connected to the issues on the Korean Peninsula, were not invited to the summit.
While the dialogue between the two Koreas holds the promise of a peaceful future, the Vancouver meeting could catalyze deterioration in the security environment of the Asia-Pacific. The choice now is whether to achieve lasting peace or to slip into a new cold war.
This round of talks was held out of political necessity on both sides. For the South, ensuring a secure environment for the upcoming Winter Olympics is a major priority and the participation of the North offers necessary assurances for a successful event. It was also South Korean President Moon Jae-in's stance on resolving the North's nuclear issue through dialogue that provided the vital precondition for these high-level talks.
North Korea also played an active role in bringing these talks to fruition. In fact, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un revealed his intention to promote bilateral dialogue in his New Year's speech. In the speech, Kim said that North Korea has become an international nuclear power with strong and reliable deterrent and his country should regard the accomplishment as a springboard for further progress. To that end, Kim believes that the priority of diplomacy is to thaw ties with the South. If the irregular state of the Korean Peninsula is not rectified, then national reunification cannot be realized and the tragedy of nuclear war may be inevitable, he said. Noting that the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea falls in the same year as the Winter Olympics, Kim revealed hopes to "improve the currently frozen inter-Korean relationship and make this significant year a notable one in the history of our nation."
North Korea's intimation to the South that it is ready to ease tensions was anticipated by many who have long advocated resolving regional issues through dialogue, with U.S. President Donald Trump even expressing support for the idea of inter-Korean talks.
However, a fundamental divergence on the nuclear issue is the most obvious hurdle to successful communication between the two countries. North Korea's aim is to break the siege of international sanctions and finally achieve its strategic goals of creating nuclear weapons and realizing development. These intentions are clearly not in line with attitudes in the South. Consequently, the approach taken by the North is to shelve the nuclear issue during the course of the dialogue, yet this tactic risks derailing the talks as the nuclear issue is of critical importance to the future of both nations.
International politics has never made progress through unilateralism, and the direction of the world must ultimately be decided by the interaction of various powers. North Korea cannot avoid discussing the nuclear issue forever, and while its delegation may have refused to engage with South Korea on the issue, the same kind of rebuttal won't be possible with the U.S.
For South Korea, a door toward the denuclearization, peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula seems to have opened slightly, but major challenges still remain. The determination of its leaders and their sincerity, courage and capability to overcome difficulties will be critical in this process. However, the cooperation of international parties is also important and the Vancouver meeting clearly showed that there are problems in the nature of international coordination.
The Vancouver meeting, focused on strengthening action against North Korea in an effort to force the country to renounce its nuclear strategy, was absurd and illegal although it did ultimately welcome the inter-Korean high-level talks.
Illegal and absurd
The illegitimacy of the meeting is firstly reflected in its membership. Most of the nations in attendance were U.S. allies during the Korean War, and the way in which the meeting was summoned in the name of the "United Nations Command" reflected a Cold War mentality. Few of these nations are stakeholders in the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. In an effort to appear legitimate, the meeting constantly emphasized the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear issue to the entire world by deliberately misrepresenting what is essentially a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea as an extension of the Korean War.
In a joint statement released after the event, participants agreed to impose sanctions on North Korea which go beyond those required by UN Security Council resolutions on the matter. They also revealed plans to start inspections of vessels at sea in order to prevent ship-to-ship transfers, which are suspected of violating international law.
The meeting also showed a lack of respect to the UN Security Council. In addition to imposing more intense sanctions, the participants disregarded the Security Council's requirement for related parties, including the U.S., to solve the issue through dialogue. Instead, they formed a block to put pressure on North Korea and force it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The most farcical aspect of the meeting was India's participation and opposition to North Korea. With its own stockpile of illegal nuclear arms, India should have no say on the issue of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. By including India in the block, the participants overlooked international law, which is in their eyes merely an advisory system to be heeded or ignored at will.
The meeting, again, conflated North Korea's human rights issues with its nuclear program, which will only succeed in aggravating Pyongyang. The move also reflected a lack of sincerity for peaceful resolution.
However, the most alarming incident took place before the Vancouver meeting, when a secret Asia-Pacific military summit was convened by the U.S. and Canada and attended by top commanders. This summit targeted North Korea and its details have been kept secret. Opposed by the international community after World War II, it seems that secret military diplomacy has quietly returned to the world stage under the guise of seeking peace.
This series of moves by the U.S. and Canada have in fact established a framework for a new Cold War or even a military confrontation in the Indian Ocean and Pacific region. That would not only cause huge divisions in the international community, but further complicate the Korean issue, creating the biggest obstacle for the region's reconciliation.
The author is an associate researcher with the China Institute of International Studies
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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