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Great Talk! But What’s Next?

Earlier in January this year, a momentous talk between South Korea and North Korea took place at the border village of Panmunjom. Though the North emphasised the parameter of the talk would focus only on the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, this talk poses an unquestionable significance to the geopolitical relationships within the Korean peninsula. To some extent, it is plausible to suggest the talk might have de-escalated the tension in the peninsula, especially over the intensifying dispute over North Korea’s nuclear programme.

The Guardian and The New York Times believe that the talk can establish a solid foundation for both parties and exchange good will. Notably, North and South unprecedentedly reached a consensus over few humanitarian programs, including but not limited to reuniting elderly people with their cross-border relatives since Korean War. Thus, there is hope this dialogue can potentially stimulate a peaceful and diplomatic resolution regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. Contrarily, some argue that the talk will not shift the North’s stand on possessing a nuclear weapon, and this open dialogue will not alter the status quo in the region. Therefore, the means to denuclearise North Korea must be bloody. To rationalise the notion of what is about to happen, it is significant to analyse the multilateral relations in the peninsula as well as the North’s nuclear programme in a more heedful manner.

Concerning the situation in the peninsula after the Winter Olympics, there are noticeably two bipolar perspectives in the region – optimists and pessimists. Optimists believe, as most Liberalists in international politics do, that the Winter Olympics talk serves as a starting point for negotiations. Regardless of whether the negotiation will specifically pertain to the North’s nuclear programme, it has certainly opened a dialogue between the two stakeholders after a two-year stalemate. For this reason, it is justified to suggest that it is ‘possible’ to open a dialogue with the North regarding the nuclear programme if the right conditions are achieved. In other words, if the right conditions are presented to North Korea, it is possible to avoid military means to potentially denuclearise the region.

The billion-dollar question, therefore, should be about determining what exactly are the right conditions? Economically, the enormous sanctions imposed by the United Nations have taken away a third of North Korea’s economy. Politically, apart from China, North Korea does not have any strategic allies, and, thus, it has always been considered as a rogue state in the international community. Furthermore, North Korea has never really been involved in any substantial international issues. For this reason, the bottom line of achieving the right conditions should firstly be lifting the UN sanctions, as well as officially acknowledging North Korea’s role in engaging numerous international issues. The only entity that is capable of granting these conditions is the UN Security Council. However, official resolutions are hard to fulfil. This is due to the veto right of permanent members in addition to the requirement of a majority vote for from the Security Council members. At this stage, it is rather preposterous to think all the members in the Security Council will easily agree on granting those conditions to merely open a dialogue with North Korea and particularly without guaranteeing anything in return. Also, since China and the US often have conflicting interests within the Peninsula region, to pass an official UN resolution will be incredibly complex and time-consuming. As a result, on North Korea’s nuclear issue, it is not rational to be overly optimistic.

Regardless of the right conditions, most pessimists (or realists) in international relations believe that North Korea has absolutely no reason to give up their nuclear development. According to the International Relations theory of Realism, the world is akin to a grim battlefield and states relentlessly use armed forces to compete against each other – since realism posits that with greater armed force come greater resources and more allies. Thus, to maximise the profit and well-being of a country, it is in a state’s best interests to advance their military power. The very same concept applies to North Korea – in other words, as tempting as the conditions may be, whether political or economic, North Korea will not stop advancing their armed force and nuclear technology. Another explanation as to why North Korea will not be giving up their nuclear test, apart from the old-school realism, is that they have incredibly limited leverage in the international community. Looking at our current situation, CNBC has suggested that North Korea’s economy still resides in the 70s and requires a significant period to catch up with the rest of the world. Thus, if they want to be considered seriously within the international community, they must advance their armed forces, which takes a shorter duration than developing the economy to catch up with the world.

To sum up, North Korea has unquestionably shown a great gesture in arranging official talks with South Korea for Winter Olympics. And, it is promising that an open dialogue can be achieved if the right conditions are met. However, it does not seem to be a simple task to reach those conditions. Even if they are satisfied, nothing can be guaranteed. Additionally, North Korea has no justifiable reason to give up their only leverage in the international community. Therefore, denuclearising North Korea maynot be as peaceful as we had expected.