Suddenly, the lights of the diplomatic theater dim, and a wider cast of players — more than the program seemed to indicate — move in the shadows. Until now, it has been a game of relatively honest posturing: brightly lit theater. Next, each player postures for a range of open and hidden audiences, and nothing will be as it seems.
Strategic negotiations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea moved, by the beginning of May 2018, well beyond the scope of the two apparent protagonists. While the U.S. and the DPRK were in the spotlight, other participants maneuvered in the shadows.
From this point, anything that appears in the public eye will not be what it appears to be, or what it is said to be.
Although the outcome seemed likely to reduce the perceived threats to and by the DPRK, facilitating a phased opening of logistical links to make North Korea part of the “Silk Road network”, it was highly unlikely that there would be an immediate (or even near-term) end to the deployment of strategic weapons and delivery systems in the region.
Contrary to the stated objective of the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (or, from the U.S. standpoint, just the de-nuclearization of the DPRK), the non-negotiable elements were clear: that no party would surrender its strategic force options. What was difficult, then, was finding the language and imagery to make that reality palatable politically in the U.S. (and West), the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan.
In the near-term, what was perceived as critical to each player was that it could declare success in the process, and plausibly deny visible advantage to other players. That process limited the scope of what could be announced as a “success” from the opening round of the U.S.-DPRK talks, scheduled to occur probably within June 2018.
Semantics and image shaping, then, were the critical determinant of success as the talks between U.S. Pres. Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un occur. But that is not to say that changes of substance would not occur, just that success would depend on making these changes palatable to a range of mutually incompatible audiences.
The U.S. and DPRK may have appeared to be the main actors, but others were bent on shaping the outcome to meet their own needs. Players which have absolutely vital concerns at stake were, apart from the U.S. and the DPRK, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of Korea, Japan, Russia, Iran, and the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan). Each were preparing to secure their interests. And other players, from Australia to the European Union to Saudi Arabia, understood that the outcome could determine aspects of the emerging global strategic architecture. At the same time, there were historical and tangential issues bearing on the process.
U.S. Pres. Donald Trump worked from the beginning of 2017 to exclude as much as possible other players from what he sought to make a bilateral negotiation between the U.S. and the DPRK. He succeeded.
But other players, particularly the PRC, worked strenuously and discreetly to ensure that this would never be allowed to occur in reality. No-one has more to gain from these talks than Kim — not even Donald Trump — and no-one has more to lose from them than PRC Pres. Xi Jinping. And perhaps, outside the publicized bill of players, the state which has its future on the line, too, is Iran.
What happens with Kim and Trump should be expected to roll immediately on to the U.S.-Iran transaction, coming next on the strategic agenda. And that, then, would impact all of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.
So, there were always going be ghosts and shadows in the room when Kim and Trump met, particularly for Kim.
Pres. Trump knew this would be the case and worked to take sufficient numbers and types of initiatives which would, through the year or so building up to the talks, consistently drive the initiative back under Washington’s domination, and out of the hands of Xi.
Pres. Trump’s arm’s-length negotiations with Kim Jong-Un proceeded predictably and logically from early 2017 and until May 2018, despite media and political hysteria. It led to Kim Jong-Un’s preliminary — and, again, nominally bilateral — summit with Republic of Korea Pres. Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
The fundamental question is what may have changed in terms of substance as a result of the April 27, 2018, ROK-DPRK talks. Some things have changed: a formal end to the Korean War may now be at hand. This on its own will enable a range of other normalization processes to occur on the Korean Peninsula. What also has changed is the fact that the most critical narrative — the desire for reunification of the Peninsula — has been put aside indefinitely. This alone diminishes the perception of threat between North and South.
But some of the other factors which must be considered (and which were not necessarily evident during earlier processes aimed at containing the DPRK), include:
• DPRK Confidence: The DPRK has essentially completed development, construction, and operational deployment of a layered strategic military capability which could (a) deliver a nuclear first strike regionally and intercontinentally, and (b) probably survive a retaliatory strike to deliver a credible second strike. This resulted in creating a demonstrable, credible strategic deterrent capability which gives Pyongyang a higher degree of confidence in its security than it has had in the past. This, and the increased prestige of credibility, gives the DPRK the strongest negotiating hand it has ever had;
• No DPRK Confidence in the U.S. Reliability: History has taught the Kim dynasty over three generations that what one U.S. administration giveth, another can take away. Kim knows that the DPRK follows Viscount Palmerston’s maxim that nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests. But he’s equally aware that the U.S. seems to have paid less attention to that philosophy.
Thus, Kim cannot rely on a mere treaty, or handshake, or even a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear forces from the Korean Peninsula — or even from north-east Asia — as justification for irretrievably dismantling his strategic capabilities. So Pyongyang must find a way to deliver confidence to the U.S., in order to achieve a reduction in the mutual threat environment, without abandoning the DPRK’s security. Moreover, Pres. Trump knows this, and knows that the U.S. cannot abandon its forward posture in the region, because, apart from leaving the ROK, Japan, and the ROC vulnerable to DPRK capabilities, it would leave them vulnerable to the PRC;
• Beijing Was Now Prepared: The year-long gestation of the Kim- Trump process gave Beijing sufficient time to find ways to accommodate the new regional pathways which have opened up, and to ensure that they did not threaten the PRC. Certainly, the PRC was forced to alter the triumphalist tone of its “One Belt, One Road” policy, which implied it alone controlled the East-West trade dynamic across the Eurasian landmass and also via the Maritime Silk Road. In May 2017, it changed its name to the “Belt and Road Initiative” to allow for the reality that there were more drivers on the road than one.
The DPRK may help facilitate logistical links up from the ROK and across to Vladivostok, Russia, and then to Western Europe, without PRC control. But that does not seriously impair Beijing’s geopolitical lifelines across the Continent and down through the Middle East and Indian Ocean to Africa. What it does do, however, is allow Japan, the ROK, and the ROC access to that overland “Northern Silk Road” to European markets at the lower freight rates and faster transit that the PRC would have liked to have dominated;
• Iran, the Silent Partner: Iran has been the DPRK’s most significant strategic partner, or at least the one in which it has had most trust. Certainly, Pyongyang developed its initial nuclear capability very much in partnership with Pakistan, but Pakistan is presently — for a variety of reasons — not in a position to be a stable partner with the DPRK on the road on which it is now embarked. But Iran and the DPRK are essentially in total harmony on the final development of deployable nuclear weapons, missile systems, command and control structures, and in a wide range of cooperative patterns in the face of a common foe, the West.
Under normal circumstances, Iran could act as a “deep-freeze storage” for DPRK nuclear systems if Pyongyang wished to sequester its warheads, laboratories, factories, and the like. But Iran was itself facing U.S.-led pressure to do a new deal to replace or revise the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA: the P5+1 accord aimed at limiting Iranian development of nuclear weapons). There was no other comparable ally which Pyongyang could trust. Certainly, the PRC was not such a partner, given that Kim Jong-Un’s strategy has been to give the DPRK a greater measure of freedom from Beijing’s dominance over Pyongyang’s affairs.
So, to a degree, “what happens with the DPRK may happen to or with Iran”. And whatever modus vivendi Pres. Trump can devise with Kim may be the model for the U.S.-Iran revision. Bearing in mind that this was emerging as a distinctly transactional pattern, Iran may also see that what works for the DPRK could work for Tehran. So there has been great incentive for Washington, Pyongyang, and Tehran to develop the kind of perceptional result which could improve/transform the U.S. relationships with Iran and with the DPRK — in other words, leveraging those states to some extent away from Russia — while allowing all parties to declare victory.
The hard part for the U.S. in this would be to sell such an accommodation to Israel. But it may all be feasible for the U.S. and Iran outside of a revision of the JCPOA, by utilizing a separate negotiation which could leave the JCPOA intact. And that would face real resistance from Russia and the PRC, because it could threaten Moscow’s hard-won strategic relationship with Tehran;
• Trump’s “Push-Back” Objectives: Media absorption with the process of events meant that what was being ignored were Pres. Trump’s objectives, which included making the U.S., once again, the decisive element in the global strategic dynamic. This meant, as he made clear even before taking office, that the U.S. would perforce need to push back against the PRC (in particular) and Russia.
Pres. Trump’s goals in the DPRK-Iran initiatives he has undertaken are, essentially, to force those target states to move away from their present strategic sponsors and back toward the U.S. He is not concerned that such actions would, by helping Moscow create a second Silk Road infrastructure, contribute to Russia’s economic success. Indeed, Pres. Trump seemed, as of May 2018, not to have been moved away from his premise that Russia, ultimately, was the greatest asset which the West had in the strategic containment of the PRC.
This is not widely recognized in a Washington polity still mired in continuing the Cold War antipathy to a Russia which it sees as, still, an unrepentantly communist Soviet Union, despite the reality that anti-communist Russian nationalists have a very different world view than the Soviets.
• The Russia-Japan Quiet Side Issue: Much of the Trump-Kim initiative has been facilitated by, and functioned in the context of the fact that Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been working to resolve their own nations’ differences so that they can finally sign an end to World War II hostilities, which still formally exist between them. That would, along with the calming of the Korean Peninsula, result in the most dramatic revitalization of north-east Asia and both Japan’s and Russia’s economic fortunes.
It would also circumvent the PRC’s attempts to dominate the Western Pacific by controlling energy links to Japan, the ROK, and the ROC (Taiwan), allowing Russian energy exports to flow easily and directly to the region. Maritime trade through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea would be less important, a factor which could be key in lowering still further dependency on the Middle East.
• PRC Concerns: Everything about this process impacts the PRC’s strategic posture and future, so Beijing’s engagement must continue to be unrelenting and multi-dimensional. At its broadest strokes, any part of the process which strengthens U.S. prestige or capability in the region is a setback for Beijing. Moreover, the very dynamic of U.S. momentum in the region forces Beijing into actions which could be potentially confrontational with the U.S. at a time when the PRC is not yet confident that it is militarily ready for any bluff-calling.
The most important part of the U.S. push-back is that it weakens the PRC’s ability to continue its moves to engulf not only the South and East China Seas, but also to eliminate the threat of containment which is embodied in U.S./Allied dominance over the First Island Chain which keeps the PRC from surging into the mid-Pacific. The Trump Administration has made major progress in reversing the “loss” to the PRC of the Philippines, something directly attributable to the policies of the former U.S. Barack Obama Administration.
Beijing had been extremely happy with the Obama “Pacific Pivot”, which, in fact, did nothing to substantively improve the U.S. strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific; it merely allowed Obama to weaken U.S. commitments in the Euro-Atlantic space [also gradually being reversed as the U.S. re-established, on May 5, 2018, the US Navy’s Second Fleet, based in Norfolk, Virginia, to address Atlantic challenges]. But, of paramount importance to Beijing, is that the U.S. has begun to quietly rebuild its strategic relationship with the Republic of China — Taiwan — which had been progressively weakened since the U.S. Carter Administration’s activities with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
The fact that Pres. Trump signed, on March 15, 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act (Public Law 115-135), encouraging the visits by senior U.S. officials to Taiwan, and senior ROC officials to the U.S., was the start of a scaling back of Carter’s in toto adoption of Beijing’s wishes for Washington to essentially abandon Taiwan. This is likely to be followed by Trump Administration support for the sale of Lockheed Martin/BAE F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft to the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF).
This not so much reflects Pres. Trump’s support for Taiwan, but the reality that Washington is now looking for a replacement buyer for the F-35As which had been originally intended for Turkey. There was, by May 2018, increasing likelihood that the U.S. would unilaterally cancel Turkey’s right to buy the F-35As, officially because of the Turkish purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, which would require a compromise of F-35A technology to work with the S-400 system, thereby possibly compromising the F-35A’s links to Russia. So the F-35 sale may go to the ROC, albeit probably the F-35B STOVL variant, rather than the conventional take- off and landing F-35A.
In summary, everything about the “bilateral” U.S.-DPRK talks ripples through a broader, global agenda, for all players, not just Washington and Pyongyang. Pres. Trump’s seemingly unambitious approach to the talks — “if we don’t get an agreement, we simply walk away” — has added impetus to the DPRK’s need to gain something from the process. But, in fact, Pyongyang has already gained considerably in its negotiating position, and ability to be able to open relations internationally, even if the Trump-Kim talks fail to give an immediate iconic result (which is likely, apart from the “normalization” theatrics).
What the process has begun to give is the cosmetic that now it is the DPRK which drives for a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It calls the bluff of the U.S. while extending into the distant future the time that North Korea would be obliged to abandon its comprehensive strategic capability. Similarly, there would be no likelihood that the U.S. would not have to meaningfully reduce its regional posture.
But what this process does is that it enables (a) an end to the Korean War in a formal sense, and (b) increases normalization in DPRK-ROK relations, enabling a phased process by which logistical lines through the DPRK could enhance trade from the ROK through to Western Europe via Russia.
The new process will have some tangible outcomes in that the DPRK will achieve a greater degree of separation from Beijing, but this will also reduce Beijing’s responsibility for the DPRK economy, without seeing the DPRK move out of substantial influence from Beijing. It seems that Pres. Xi Jinping can accept that, because it is, in fact, a very comfortable trade-off for the PRC. And the PRC would benefit, as well, from a more stable and economically growing neighborhood, which would include a more prosperous Russian Far East.
Certainly, in the long run, if the process leads (as it almost certainly will) to a Russia-Japan normalization, then the PRC would have to consider the revived Pacific strength of Russia as a possible/probable long-term strategic constraint. It would also have to figure that Japan itself would have an improved strategic capability, but that Japan might be constrained by the growth of Russian Asian strength.
Beijing is still warily attempting to determine whether the new closeness of the DPRK and ROK might mean a reduction in U.S. influence on the Peninsula, or whether the U.S. has, in fact, been able to strengthen its overall posture in the region, particularly with the ROC and the First Island Chain.
The net effect of the Trump initiative to engage with Kim Jong-Un — and it was, indeed, entirely a Trump- generated phenomenon, supported strongly by Japan and Russia — will be portrayed as a win-win by all players. Certainly, there is likely to be a reduction in Korean Peninsula tensions, even as a result of the “normalization” of relations between the DPRK and the ROK.
But it is important to recognize that the process is entirely driven by theater. Perceptions will drive outcomes, which means that there will be theatrical accommodations of realities such as nuclear weapons. The script for each of the players has yet to be fully written, but the mere reduction of tensions on the Peninsula will make the scripts flow more lyrically.
What we are still attempting to determine is whether it is a Broadway script which determines the play, or something more opaque. Is it a Korean talchum (a mask dance) performance? Or geurimja-geuk (a shadow drama)? Or inhyeong-geuk (a puppet show)? Or p’ansori, an epic song performance? Or perhaps something else entirely?
By Gregory R. Copley via Defense and Foreign Affairs
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