DPRK comes in from the cold
It was a symbolic moment when US President Donald Trump and the DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un shook hands on Tuesday in Singapore. Historically it was the first time an American president and the DPRK head of state have ever met. Expectedly, the meeting could not deliver any conclusive arrangement for peace on the Korean peninsula. More realistically, it commenced what will be a long process toward reshaping the future of the region.
The true outcome of this Singapore summit is the opening of direct talks between the DPRK and USA. This will begin a process toward resolving the two critical horse trade issues: abandonment of nuclear weapons on the peninsula for the removal of sanctions against the DPRK. The success of these two steps will open up two more issues: the question of removing US troops from South Korea and the possibility of turning the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into an economic zone. The DPRK already has known blueprints for nine special economic zones following China's model introduced in the 1980s. Two of these zones border China, the rest are along South Korea's border.
The body language and short statements presented at the library press conference on Sentosa Island this morning said a lot. Trump seemed stiff, crouching in his chair and blustering generalities like the meeting was "terrific". Kim, more relaxed and even leaning on the armchair, coolly observed, "Old practices were obstacles in our way forward. We overcame old prejudices to get here today."
The question is whether those old practices and prejudices can really be put aside to remove obstacles. From today's positive tone, it seems a fresh dual reciprocal track toward both de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula in exchange for removing American sanctions has finally begun.
In fact, there are two processes happening in parallel, which are very different. The first is an ongoing direct dialogue between the DPRK and South Korea. The two heads of state, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, communicate directly on almost a daily basis. Their objectives are clear: Reduce tension along the demilitarized zone, and open economic processing zones and corridors for communication and cross-border investment. The second process has begun with the meeting of Trump and Kim and the question of assuring denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the lifting of American sanctions against the DPRK.
From this equation arises the complication of different interests. During his campaign Trump talked about American troops on the Korean peninsula being an unnecessary taxpayer expense. Becoming elected president is different from campaigning. A withdrawl of American troops from the peninsula also will symbolize a downsizing of American interests and influence in the region. It will also mark a reduction of lucrative sales of military hardware to South Korea.
In contrast, both the DPRK and South Korea have everything to gain from a lasting peace on the peninsula alongside China. Costs of labor have increased in both China's northeast and in South Korea as both have moved up the economic productivity chain. The DPRK offers potential with some 25 million low cost workers who need employment. "It will be trade and investment that will end poverty in the DPRK and give people a real future more than aid," observed Rudi Sirr, special economic advisor to the DPRK under appointment from the prime minister. "They have a self determination ideology that runs counter to the concept of aid. They have been held captive to the aid handout process only because of the sanctions. The idea of inbound foreign investment is aligned with their ideas of self-reliance."
"There are a growing number of millennials in the leadership and many who have lived and studied abroad with a global outlook, who do not want the DPRK to remain a hermit kingdom anymore," Sirr observes.
Washington think tanks and politicians may not necessarily be aligned in their goals for the Korean peninsula. But the administration in Pyongyang is. Finally it is time for the DPRK to come in from the cold.
Kim has played his cards carefully and strategically. Bringing an American president to the table in direct talks has been the goal of not only Kim Jong-un but his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung before. Previous attempts failed. Between 2003-2007 China convened and hosted one round of three party talks and six rounds of six party talks, because Washington refused to have direct dialogue with Pyongyang. For Kim Jong-un, to achieve direct dialogue – not only between the DPRK and USA but directly between Kim and Trump – has required both brinkmanship and rational concession, a hard fist and soft hand. This is not about the art of the deal, but rather the way of Tai Kwando.
Laurence Brahm is founding director of Himalayan Consensus and a senior international fellow at the Center for China and Globalization.