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With the approach of the Singapore Summit, the world is now closer than ever to the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the ongoing tensions between North Korea and its Southern neighbour. However, while President Donald Trump is set to in talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, the ongoing communications remain tense between North Korean and the U.S., as well as their Southern counterpart.
In spite of the strides taken to close nuclear testing sites, and the increased dialogue with South Korea fostered by the cooperation of the two nations in creating a joint team for the Winter Olympics, peace between the troubled nations has yet to completely be realised.
In 2003, ex-U.S. president George Bush attempted to reach out to Kim Jong Il following North Korea’s withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty. This event took place after Washington had discovered that Pyongyang had been working on an undeclared uranium weapons program. Subsequent to this discovery, the U.S. ceased shipments of fuel oil – which, at the time, had been part of the agreement that entailed that the U.S. would supply North Korea with oil after graphite reactors had been shut down and the state began their construction of light water reactors. The United States then entered talks alongside countries including China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea, in an attempt to find a solution to North Korea’s growing nuclear desires, in what would later become known as the Six Party Talks. These discussions would continue to be held for the next six years, but would eventually be dissolved in 2009, following the escalation of hostilities within the region and the growing distrust amongst all actors.
The primary reason for the failure of the initial talks stemmed from the inability for all sides to trust the intentions of one another. The beginning of the end of the Six Party Talks came in April of 2009, when North Korea spoke of launching a rocket that had been allegedly been intended for putting a satellite into orbit. Other nations believed the missile to be an explosive device, with Barrack Obama condemning the action, warning that, “Violations must be punished.” Defying the outcry from neighbouring nations and the international community, North Korea launched the missile – a test that ultimately ended in failure.
The state later conducted a nuclear test at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Since these incidents, there was a resulting escalation of hostility that led to the loss of many lives, including the shelling of Yeonpyeong which saw the deaths of two military personnel and two civilians, along with a reported eighteen other civilians injured.
Relations only worsened when all nations involved began to leave promises partly – or even entirely – unfulfilled. These two incidents are both indicative of a lack of trust between North Korea and others in the international community, and has not only dissolved the relationship between South and North Korea until recently, but also worsened the relationship between North Korea and other nations like the U.S.
While the open mistrust did not escalate tensions into open warfare among the powers involved, it has hindered progress towards open dialogue between past leaders. In fact, it wasn’t until the most recent change of leadership in the acting states (i.e., China, North Korea, South Korea, and the U.S.) that there have been any earnest attempts towards reconciliation.
Moon Jae-In has been one of the most prominent actors in opening talks with North Korea, with the latter nation now starting to make steps towards cooperation. The most noteworthy and recent example of their mutual participation was the shutting down of the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site. Despite the progress that has been made, however, one cannot forget that this is not the first time that North Korea has stepped forward for peace talks, only for everything to fall apart.
The most important and pressing factor to ensuring the success of the talks is the ability for all countries involved to deliver on promises. In the past, there have been issues with North Korea failing in keeping their promises on nuclear disarmament, which has made many of its immediate neighbours skeptical. And while skepticism and taking caution to a degree are warranted in the continued dealings with North Korea – especially in light of past threats of attack – suspicion at the same level among South Korea and the U.S. towards North Korea today will make any meaningful negotiation difficult. Cooperation is only going to be possible if the states involved are willing to commit to open dialogue with one another, without the same overt expectations of the worst-case scenario that had been preeminent in past talks. If North and South Korea both prove to one another that they can keep their promises in the nuclear disarmament process, this will go a long way to easing tensions that exist between both powers even further.
The U.S. is another important actor who holds considerable sway over the path to peace in the Korean Peninsula. There have been moments where the intentions behind the U.S. in opening dialogue has been called into question, especially considering their sudden cancellation of the initial Singapore Summit. However, as with South Korea, if North Korea and the U.S. are capable of fulfilling their agreed-upon promises with one another, this could go a long way to repairing the damaged relationship between both states, which will then in turn, benefit the Korean Peninsula’s stability, due to how close South Korea has remained to the U.S. since its founding.
Unfortunately, the keeping of promises is only one such realisation of peace within the region. Another key factor for ensuring peace would be the willingness of North Korea to avoid displays of hostility or military aggression as it was prone to. In the past, when North Korea felt threatened by its neighbours, they have often resorted to making threats or overt demonstrations of power. Not only have there been attacks, such as the attack staged on YeonPyong, there have also been incidents were border disputes have resulted in open hostility between both nations. Incidents such as the battle of Daechong, where a North Korean vessel crossed the Northern Limit Line and refused to leave even after repeated warnings, resulting in an altercation with a South Korean patrol.
If the North is to have any hope of soothing concerns, they will need to respect the borders that were put in place at the end of the war and refrain from making attempts to provoke their neighbours, lest they wish to once again open hostility during such a tenuous period. If the six parties are capable of opening dialogue without open suspicion – whilst also ensuring neither party makes any open threats or displays of hostility towards one another – it may be possible for the Korean Peninsula to be stabilised, and also eventually foster a healthy relationship with other players in the international stage.