Who Lost Korea? The Third Inter Korean Summit

The much anticipated Third Inter Korean Summit, this time between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, has concluded amid much fanfare and some quite spectacular imagery. The first two Inter Korean summits proved, ultimately, to be failures and whether it will be third time lucky to no small degree depends upon our actions which in turn have much to do with our analyses of the evolving situation. We must ensure that we get both right.

As the summit communique makes clear the third summit is meant to act as a springboard for further measures directed toward not merely further inter-Korean détente but also the formal end of the state of war on the Korean peninsula that has existed since 1950.

The future of the Korean nation and Korean civilisation is and ought be a matter for the Koreans themselves, and it seems to me that one impetus behind the current round of inter-Korean détente is a realisation, across both sides of the 38th parallel, that outside powers, in particular the United States and Japan, seek to use a nuclear crisis that risks the very survival of Korea for their own ends, and to limit any nuclear war to the Korean peninsula. In this sense, the sentiment is similar to the growing realisation that took hold in Europe during the cold war that the US and the Soviet Union were angling to limit a conflict to Central Europe.

That, of course, would be one impetus. My own view is that the best primary document we have that explains the origins of the summit, and what might happen after it, remains Kim Jong-un’s January 01 2018 address marking the new year. I would recommend that you have another read of that address.

When doing so you will surely notice, as I had at the time, that despite the attention the nuclear part received in the West, obsessed as it is with all things nuclear, that the speech was characterised by an especially strong commitment to science and technology, and to further modernising the scientific and technological potential of North Korea in support of a programme of economic modernisation. The closest parallel in recent world politics to Kim Jong-un that I can think of is Dmitry Medvedev, the former President of Russia. Medvedev during his presidency adopted a policy that was known as the Medvedev modernisation programme, which had at its core the goal of diversifying the Russian economy away from reliance on commodity exports (energy, ICT, biotech, nuclear, space was singled out). Medvedev realised that this required access to Western technology and participation in international scientific projects, so therefore Medvedev attempted to ease geopolitical tensions with the West during his term of office.

That programme, as we know, did not unfold according to plan.

Kim Jong-un, in part, is taking a leaf out of Medvedev’s book. I suspect that one reason for this is that Kim has developed an especial regard for what advanced science and technology can do by observing what both have achieved on the nuclear front. North Korea is probably the closest thing we have to a positivist state. You will be hard pressed to find as strong a statement of the positivist faith as this one from Kim Jong-un’s new year address (my emphasis)

My warm, comradely greetings go also to our defense scientists and workers in the munitions industry who made devoted efforts all the year round, to demonstrate to the world that the plans and decisions of the Party Central Committee are a science and a truth and that they automatically mean their materialization.

The stress placed on science and technology is a thread that runs through both aspects of North Korea’s Byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing economic modernisation and the completion of the state nuclear force, understood as a comprehensive nuclear deterrent able to strike the continental United States. For North Korea, just like the Soviet Union and the United States back in the day, nuclear weapons, long range missiles and space technology are seen as potent symbols of modernity.

North Korea seeks to improve relations with the external world, especially South Korea, not just to alleviate and reverse the sanctions regime but also to gain access to advanced Western science and technology. This is of central importance, hence the analogy drawn to Medvedev. Most nuclear nonproliferation analysts have focused on verification as a main challenge to be faced by any denuclearisation process, a contention that is surely correct, but I would suggest that problems regarding dual use items might well loom just as large. To what extent will duel use items continue to be banned for export to North Korea? Hawks in the United States could use concerns regarding dual use items to put the brakes on Korean détente, which would be significant given that access to science and technology is a key driver of North Korean policy.

It is not just Kim Jong-un’s new year address that indicates this emphasis on science and technology. The recent Plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party made this quite clear. Throughout the history of “really existing socialism” the central committee of communist parties have tended to be neglected in scholarship, doubtless an expression of the dominance of totalitarian theory in western political science, however it is interesting to observe that significant turning points are often associated with central committee meetings. For example, the 8th session of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1987 brought Slobodan Milosevic to power and led to a change of policy regarding Kosovo and Serbia’s place in socialist Yugoslavia, in 1987 at a Central Committee Plenum the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted the policy of Perestroika and China’s economic reforms have their origins at a Central Committee Plenum of the Communist Party of China in 1978.

Just prior to the Third Inter Korean Summit the Central Committee of the WPK agreed to place economic modernisation on a higher plane, to concentrate all the efforts of the country and party on socialist economic construction, having declared the completion of what North Korea calls the state nuclear force. The origins of inter-Korean détente, from Pyongyang’s perspective, can be found here not as a response to Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and actions.

It should be stressed that the emphasis is on “socialist” economic construction and on “Juche.” There exists no evidence that the North Korean elite have abandoned “socialism,” placed in quotation marks because what they call socialism isn’t socialism, and become closet social democrats. I have this theory that the elite, both in North Korea and China (despite western allusions regarding China), remain orthodox Marxists. That is, they understand that the transition from agrarian feudalism to socialism, as Marx had it, requires first an industrial revolution, a leap to modernity, and that requires compromise in the here and now. Gaining access to science and technology is necessary, but it is necessary to enhance self reliance, this is not contradictory, and to achieve a level of industrial development consistent with socialism. So far as I can see that is still Marxism. Moreover, if one examines carefully North Korean statements, including the resolution of the Central Committee Plenum discussed above, stress is placed on enhancing the party’s role in implementing policy. That is not Glasnost, and that makes Kim Jong-un no Mikhail Gorbachev.

To add one more point before returning to the summit, we should note that North Korea, in part, has been pursuing a nuclear weapons programme because it perceives that a comprehensive nuclear deterrent carves out a geopolitical space behind which it can safely pursue economic modernisation and nuclear weapons provide Pyongyang with leverage to improve relations with the United States. We will come back to this.

However, to return to the summit communique it is surely worth noting that it begins much like this article began

South and North Korea affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord

They are the most important words in the communique because all else follows on from them. The communique early reaffirms the implementation of previous, frozen agreements, the earliest example provided in the communique being;

South and North Korea agreed to actively implement the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.As a first step, the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilisation

The communique also speaks of building a liaison office at the site of a former South Korean-North Korean industrial park doubtless a statement of intent regarding its revival. The economic provisions, in line with North Korean policy, clearly have a high priority and they appear before the military-security provisions and the statement of commitment to denuclearisation, the focus of the Western especially American media, was the last item discussed in the communique.

The two Koreas have pledged to pursue the easing of military tensions through the pursuit of a peace process designed to end the state of war between the two Koreas, that is moving beyond a mere cease fire agreement to a formal agreement or treaty of peace, confidence and security building measures, and to work for the attainment of what the communique calls disarmament measures.

These are significant provisions.

The easing of military tension might well lead to a reduction, if not outright suspension, in the scale of US-South Korean military exercises which is important as such exercises can act as a catalyst for diplomatic and military crises. Furthermore, of equal if not more significance, the development of a conventional security regime on the Korean peninsula not unlike the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty regime in Europe might see both sides pull back their military forces from the DMZ and deploy their armed forces in a way that precludes large scale flanking combined arms operations. That is important because a key source of security concern for North Korea is the ability of US-South Korean forces to envelope Pyongyang through combined arms manoeuvre warfare; US-ROK wargames, especially during the Obama era, increasingly simulated such operations. A conventional security regime such as the CFE is good for crisis prevention.

Regarding denuclearisation this communique adds little, although I think one aspect to the communique might be of importance. Denuclearisation requires the participation of the United States, and the communique implicitly recognises this. North Korea, it is true, has affirmed its commitment to denuclearisation but that should be put into context. Even when North Korea was bomb and missile testing its policy on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula was in place. North Korea is not the first state to conduct nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests whilst being formally committed to denuclearisation. In many respects Kim Jong-un is playing from Obama’s nuclear playbook. Make statements on nuclear disarmament that are flowery but of little substance and which have little impact on current and future nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula for North Korea is not something that is North Korea specific. The United States is also required to engage in reciprocal like-for-like actions. The most tangible expression of North Korea’s denuclearisation pledge thus far has been the suspension of ballistic missile testing and nuclear weapon testing, and the announced closing of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, both made at the recent Central Committee plenum discussed above.

Reports have appeared in the media, days before the statement, that the announced closure of Punggye-ri follows because the test site has collapsed. That is a furphy. There have been tectonic and nontectonic aftershocks following the September 03 2017 successful test of a two stage thermonuclear device but that is likely a reflection of the collapse of the rock above the test cavity formed after a nuclear explosion rather than a collapse of the entire test site, which has numerous tunnels arrayed in distinct tunnel complexes. North Korea’s suspension of nuclear weapon and missile testing is consistent with Kim Jong-un’s January 01 new year address declaration that Pyongyang has completed the development of the state nuclear force. Scepticism still exists about the extent to which this is true. For example, it is argued that North Korea has not successfully tested a reentry vehicle for an ICBM, that it has not developed a warhead with sufficient yield-to-weight ratio for a strategically significant ICBM, that it has only conducted one test, and to a lofted trajectory, of the Hwasong-15 ICBM.

I am reluctant to share such analyses. I suggest that North Korea has acquired a “window of vulnerability” capability, that is North Korea can deliver a high yield thermonuclear warhead to any American city. The weak link to my reading, I tend to think, isn’t at the level of warhead miniaturisation or reentry vehicle dynamics but rather missile reliability. The credibility of deterrence requires highly reliable missiles. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia engaged in numerous flight tests of its missiles both when in development and when actively deployed. From 1962 to 1964 the United States conducted 33 flight tests of the Titan II ICBM, with flight tests 20 to 33 being a streak of 13 successful tests. The MX missile, in the 1980s, was flight tested, on my understanding, 12 times during development. We have to be careful what counting rules we use for North Korea. The Hwasong-15 has been tested once, however I have seen North Korean statements which say that it has been tested more than once that is that Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 testing are seen as components of the flight testing programme of the Hwasong-15. That adds a different dimension, as does the possible use of highly precise machine tools during manufacture of missile components which goes to enhanced standardisation and, furthermore, relatively high power computers aid in the analysis of combustion instability in missile and rocket engines through simulation of hot fire tests which also might lower the felt need for extensive flight testing. Furthermore, the United States tests its deployed missiles because the damage expectancy criteria of counterforce strategic targeting impose stringent reliability requirements. North Korea would not have such a nuclear strategy.

Remaining stead fast on denuclearisation through a policy that is reflective of the nuclear status quo is not mutually exclusive with a policy that sees the state nuclear force as leverage to improve relations with the United States. One thing that is interesting about recent North Korean comments on the nuclear front, including the Central Committee resolution, is not just what it says but what it does not say. Kim Jong-un’s new year address included a statement to the effect that having completed the construction of the state nuclear force North Korea would concentrate on the “mass production” of its strategic nuclear capabilities. Presumably, that policy remains in force and is being implemented.

I think we should take seriously North Korea’s claim that it has the capability to strike targets in the United States with a high yield thermonuclear warhead.

The communique had this statement on denuclearisation which I felt to be important

South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard

South Korea here declares North Korea’s largely status quo statements and actions on denuclearisation as being, rather, highly meaningful. One way to interpret this is to suppose that Moon Jae-in here is demonstrating a steely determination to not allow nonproliferation concerns to undermine inter-Korean détente and peace in the way hawks in Washington have previously. This time South Korea will boldly strike out on peace in Korea, if need be in a manner that does not march in lockstep with the United States. Should that happen, Donald Trump, through his absurdist statements and actions, and Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, through their short sighted policy of “strategic patience,” would have handed Washington a most significant foreign policy defeat in precisely the world’s most dynamic region. That would be a big deal indeed.

Scott Sagan has labelled the current phase of the North Korean nuclear crisis “the Korean missile crisis” drawing an obvious parallel to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps our attention should be drawn to an earlier time. Perhaps the day will soon come when elite commentators and policy makers ask wistfully; who lost Korea?