It is freezing in Seoul. Literally. Despite the dip in temperature, the mood is optimistic – even though there is some underlying scepticism in the capital regarding the viability of the talks that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government held with Pyongyang.
The 2018 Winter Olympics will be something of an icebreaker across the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and are likely get the beleaguered yet quintessentially defiant North Korea to lower its guard and engage. However, the geopolitical and economic dynamics on the Pacific Rim may have also added to the impetus.
Washington, especially the Trump administration, has been seeking active cooperation from Beijing to rein in the North Korean leader whose trigger-happy approach in the face of international condemnation has caused jitters worldwide. A third-world war triggered by two leaders across the Pacific is a scenario most countries would strongly avoid.
China would hate to have a stronger US military presence and the exchange of nuclear warheads in its backyard. Any attack, retaliatory or otherwise, on Pyongyang is bound to pull in all the regional powers – whether it is Beijing, Moscow or Tokyo.
According to a recent article on CNNMoney, North Korea’s trade with China went down by 50 percent in December 2017 as a result of sanctions that were imposed last year. The closure of several businesses in the northeastern Chinese border town of Dadong, which used to cater to North Koreans, is a testament to this fact. While the drop in the volume of trade is likely to affect North Korea much more than China, Beijing is likely to ensure that the further destabilisation of Pyongyang should not occur, especially if it is headed westwards. Beijing would also not welcome a famine-induced Korean refugee crisis. Hence China’s recent actions could be viewed as a sharper reprimand than usual for Kim Jong-un and not a policy change that is tantamount to severing ties with the regime.
Kim Jong-un, for all his bravado and provocations – especially those that rattle North Korea’s neighbours and Washington by testing inter-continental ballistic missiles – knows the implications of the tightening of the economic noose by China. Pyongyang’s lack of resources is dismal. The country has been the recipient of severe sanctions and recent ones approved by the UN are bound to add to the misery of the people.
A common story narrated by tourist guides to visitors to the DMZ is that the lack of energy resources in the north has led to people cutting trees in forests. This may well be the case as a distinctly barren landscape across the DMZ is visible. Desperation has even resulted in wooden doors and the roofs of public buildings and bathrooms being stolen by the people. It is with these thoughts that the excitement at seeing the closed railway line, with the sign ‘To Pyongyang’ at the train station in the DMZ, is checked in the face of sombre reality. In addition, the geographical proximity and the danger of any escalation in tensions poses to both people separated by war and an uneasy truce is not a comfortable reality.
However futile the talks might be, communication is always the better option. The North Korean regime remains closed and oppressive as it seeks the world’s attention. The only way to get it on board is to engage with the regime in a manner that allows it some concessions in preserving its bravado in front of its people while seeking closer cooperation in reducing the nuclear threat behind closed doors. Sanctions alone are not going to achieve the desired effect. However, engagement and economic incentives, if schedules and conditions are met, might do the trick.
The previous six-party talks aside, Seoul and Pyongyang must engage politically and diplomatically. There is a section of disgruntled people in South Korea who already resent the attention that North Korea is getting since it decided to join the Olympics. Furthermore, a unified ice hockey team, comprising athletes from the north and south, and representation under a unification banner has aggravated sentiments.
The lack of trust in Pyongyang, which is expected to exploit the concessions given by Seoul for short-term gain and attention without seriously working towards long-lasting peace, is the main reason for this dissatisfaction, especially among the younger South Koreans. South Korea’s government, however, is keen on seeing these efforts through.
It is time that Kim Jong-un realises the futility of closing down his country as a means of perpetuating the power of a regime that cannot survive on threats and missiles for much longer.
Beijing must also exercise its influence on Pyongyang to act more responsibly. The bloody history shared by people on the Korean Peninsula will be forever marred by the loss of more than three million people. But in order to heal these wounds, the past must only be used as a reminder of the futility of war. The ‘peace Olympics’ will hopefully strengthen diplomatic efforts beyond the games.
The writer was a former deputy opinioneditor at Gulf News, Dubai.