By Barthélémy Courmont, Senior Fellow, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, Paris, France

After an annus horribilis and deep tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, everything seems to have changed in Korea since January 2018. Participation of North Korea in the Pyeongchang Olympic Games; meetings between the leaders of the two Koreas in Panmunjeom and Pyongyang; moratorium on nuclear activities; and a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore. Perspectives unthinkable just a few months ago now question the future of North Korea and different possible directions.

Denuclearization, regime change and democratization

The mention of denuclearization has revived the perspective of the “de-invention” of the atomic bomb and, by extension, a collapse of the regime and a democratization of North Korea. However, it would be naïve to consider that Kim Jong-un agrees to give up his life insurance. There is also no road map, nor even clear commitments, other than to resume the dialogue. Then, the collapse of the regime is less relevant today than it was a few years ago, due to the outcome of the economic reforms initiated by Kim Jong-un. Finally, North Korea is a totalitarian regime that could, like China, gradually turn into an authoritarian regime. But such a change will take time, and it will not succeed until North Korea comes out of isolation. The responsibility is shared between the regime and the international community, unable to rethink a sanctions regime that has shown its limits. As long as nothing changes, hopes that the regime will evolve towards greater flexibility will remain futile.

Opening of the regime and reunification

More than the Singapore summit, the most important event of 2018 was the resume of dialogue between the two Koreas. First because it closes a decade of total absence of relation between Pyongyang and Seoul. Second, because it goes way beyond the symbols. Confidence has increased between the two rival entities. To the point that the prospect of reunification has become possible again? Not sure, because the younger generations that voted for Moon do not show much interest in North Korea after seven decades of separation. They are even hostile to an extremely costly reunification. The South Korean society is changing, and it is gradually emerging from a system articulated around a close relationship between the power and the chaebols (conglomerates). Moon Jae-in is aware of this, and does not mention reunification in the current context, emphasizing instead on a pacification that receives a favorable echo in Pyongang.

Towards peace in the peninsula

Moon’s gamble is a success in replacing South Korean diplomacy at the center of all discussions on the future of the peninsula. The announcement of multiple initiatives maintains hope of a pacification, and the possibility of a peace treaty was mentionned. Moon was one of the architects of the Sunshine policy in the 2000s. The industrial site of Kaesong, North Korea’s gateway to South Korean investors was the symbol of this policy, before being closed by Park Gun-hye. If the South Korean president refuses to mention a « Sunshine policy 2.0 », the reopening of Kaesong indicates that he believes in a long-term pacification. The opening of a liaison office in Kaesong in September 2018 is a step in this direction. The risks of disappointment remain significant however. Because the future of the relation between the two Koreas depends on Pyongyang’s goodwill as well as a good perception among the South Korean population.

A dialogue still fragile

The Singapore meeting was historic. Yet, beyond the symbol, it remains limited in the terms, and no agenda has been adopted. The credibility of the U.S. in Northeast Asia is at stake, and China will unlikely validate the prospect of a bilateral agreement from which it is excluded. There is also the question of progress on the nuclear issue. The expectations are not shared between the different actors involved. Washington has made denuclearization the priority. This is legally and morally acceptable, but it is naive because it ignores Pyongyang’s strategy and the importance of nuclear weapons, and limited because security in the peninsula remains precarious, even without nuclear weapon. North Korea seeks international recognition, quite unlikely in the current context. South Korea emphasizes on pacification, while keeping the question of reunification taboo. Japan focuses on the return of the kidnapped, and the North Korean threat is useful to a Abe cabinet eager to increase its defense budget. China, is obsessed by the lifting of sanctions, which would allow Chinese investors to conquer the peninsula. Considering the difficulty of convergences in such different agendas, it is unlikely that the status quo will be profoundly changed in the near future.

Barthélémy Courmont is Professor at the Catholic University of Lille and Senior research fellow at IRIS, where he heads the Asia-Pacific program.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

 Barthélémy Courmont (2018). “What short term trends in North Korea?”,  Observatory on contemporary crises, November 12, 2018, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/what-short-term-trends-in-north-korea/