The breakdown of disarmament talks between the US and North Korea appears to form part of a strategy to lure President Trump to Pyongyang, where Kim Jong-un could host him on home ground. However, as Duncan Bartlett reports, the political mood on the other side of the Korean border is as fractious and divided as ever
If President Trump accepts an invitation to Pyongyang in the next few months, he can expect a huge welcome party.
The city’s obedient citizens would be obliged to put on a show for him involving martial music and colourful choreography. The party elite will roll out the red carpet and a hamburger dinner could probably be prepared if necessary.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, would ensure the world’s press were on hand to photograph him once again embracing and shaking hands with the famous Mr Trump. A summit in Pyongyang would add to the impression that the men stand equal on the global stage.
At the moment, the invitation to visit North Korea is metaphorically propped on the mantelpiece of the White House, awaiting a reply. Mr Trump has met the North Korean leader in Singapore and Vietnam but not, so far, on Kim’s home ground. The hawks in his circle would like to keep it that way.
They remind Mr Trump that the North Koreans remain belligerent and have fired ten sets of missiles since May, including a launch from a submarine. But the rockets, Trump has claimed, ‘are not very big ones’.
Furthermore, the most recent round of bilateral discussions – held in Stockholm in early October – ended in rancour. North Korea’s representative, Kim Myong Gil, marched onto the steps of his embassy and read an angry statement blaming Washington for the collapse of talks.
Nothing to gain
John Everard, who was Britain’s ambassador to North Korea between 2006 and 2008, is not surprised that the negotiations got nowhere. He believes that the North Koreans have much to gain by holding onto their nuclear weapons while appearing to engage in a peace process.
‘You’re asking the North Koreans to give up their weapons but why should they?’ Mr Everard asked during a recent meeting on the Korean situation hosted by the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.
‘The North Koreans believe their weapons have succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. They have bequeathed security and prestige onto the country at a time when its economy was in deep trouble. And they have enabled the regime to say to the people:“Look what we have achieved! Walk tall! Walk proud! And remember it is us, your Dear Leaders, who have delivered all this!”’
Moon in peril
Meanwhile, across the border in South Korea, several serious problems face President Moon Jae-in. The lack of tangible progress towards denuclearisation with the North is a blow to his reputation but it is not the only difficult issue.
Domestic political problems have also boiled up and – as is often the case in South Korea – the heat has spilled out onto the streets.
President Moon’s close political ally, Justice Minister, Cho Kuk, resigned in October. This move followed huge protest rallies, with up to a million people demonstrating against corruption. Both male and female lawmakers publicly shaved off their hair as a sign of their anger with Mr Kuk and the government. Mr Moon said that he felt regretful because there is ‘so much friction between the people’.
Bloomberg’s Seoul reporter Jihye Lee says President Moon faces ‘political peril’ as the country prepares for nationwide parliamentary elections in April next year.
‘The episode shows that Moon, a former civil rights lawyer, hasn’t broken the boom-and-bust cycle of South Korean presidents, who often see scandals mount and agendas stall in the second half of their single five-year term,’ notes Ms Lee.
Professor Tat Yan Kong from SOAS believes that South Korea’s economic problems are also fuelling the angry mood. The central bank in Seoul has warned that the economy may not meet its 2.2 per cent growth target this year.
‘President Moon was swept to power in the previous election because he promised to deal with everyday domestic issues, such as the unequital distribution of wealth,’ Prof Kong said at the China Institute meeting. ‘Only a minority of people in South Korea have well paid and secure jobs. The majority of workers are not well paid and their job situation is precarious, so of course people worry about corruption, and the relationships between government and the big business conglomerates.’
He believes that the relationship between North and South Korea will change if the current progressive presidency is replaced by a conservative one.
‘On the whole, the conservatives in South Korea are more likely to connect with older voters, who may remember the civil war and yearn for reunification. Whereas younger people are more inclined to be drawn towards the progressives and will be more concerned about peace and economic security. They are more likely to view the issue of reunification with the North as a much longer term objective.’
South Korea’s leadership faces the challenge of trying to balance the huge economic influence of China with the country’s commitment to its military alliance with the United States and Japan.
‘South Korea is trying to reach out to both sides – it cannot decisively just choose one,’ according to Professor Kong.
Despite President Moon Jae-in’s diplomatic engagement with the North, his administration has committed billions of additional dollars to the defence budget, which is already among the largest in the world.
In 2018, South Korea’s military expenditure reached $43 billion, an increase of 7 per cent compared with 2017, according to the Ministry of National Defence.
Much of the money went on American weaponry. South Korea’s total expenditure on defence now amounts to a larger figure than the whole of North Korea’s GDP. North Korea’s state news agency KCNA has said that South Korea’s pursuit of new weapons systems is an ‘unpardonable act of perfidy’ that threatens to undermine peace on the peninsula.
Former ambassador John Everard notes that it was the massive imbalance of defence capacity that motivated North Korea to seek weapons of mass destruction in the first place.And he warns that if the North Korean regime senses its position as a legitimate state is under threat, it could unleash a nuclear weapon.