North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding and inflammatory missile tests, President Trump’s anti-Pyongyang rhetoric and U.S. missile deployments have raised tensions in North East Asia. Our Senior Advisor for the Korean Peninsula Christopher Green looks at where South Korea’s 9 May presidential election fits into these newly complex dynamics.
Tensions between U.S. and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remain high as DPRK conducted three further missile tests, including two developmental designs, one solid-fuel, ground-to-ground Pukguksong-2 21 May, and a short-range ballistic missile 14 May, which travelled over 700km before landing in international waters south of Vladivostok; and ageing Scud-C missile 29 May, likely launched for operational reasons. China 10 May made rare high-profile announcement of missile test of its own, which Chinese analysts said conveyed Beijing’s opposition to controversial U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system deployed in South Korea (ROK). U.S. 30 May conducted successful anti-inter-continental ballistic missile test. In South Korea, Moon Jae-in, who favours improving inter-Korean relations, won 9 May presidential election with 41% of vote; China immediately issued invitation to South Korea to attend Belt and Road summit, possibly indicating desire to improve relations. Forum also brought South and North Korean delegations together for impromptu meeting on sidelines; ROK delegation reportedly delivered criticism of DPRK missile launch but also said it sensed desire for talks from DPRK side. U.S. delegation issued objection to DPRK’s presence. U.S. 16 May said it believed it could persuade China to impose new UN sanctions on DPRK; country’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley indicated discussions on new resolution underway, Washington would target and “call out” countries supporting DPRK. Moon 17 May warned there was “high possibility” of conflict with DPRK, his govt would pursue two-track policy of sanctions and dialogue. Also said he has selected special envoys to travel to ROK’s partners to improve relations; envoy in Beijing 18 May met with President Xi, who said China is ready to work with ROK to return bilateral ties to normal. Japanese PM Abe meeting with China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi 31 May said wants to work with China to resolve DPRK crisis peacefully.
Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.
Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.
China likely recognises that Pyongyang's technical progress has increased Washington's threat perception and sense of urgency.
North Korea could have been a subject on which China and the U.S. could have worked together to build confidence and trust between each other, but instead it's become a source of deeper mistrust.
Originally published in The Interpreter