Tina J. Park is a research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome and the executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day address, broadcast live to audiences on both sides of the 38th parallel, was full of hopeful and conciliatory messages about domestic economic development, peace and normalizing relations with the United States. The word “economy” dominated, replacing hysterical bluffs about nuclear arsenals of years past. In a carefully orchestrated Western-style library sitting on a couch, Mr. Kim called for prosperity, progress and cultural enlightenment. Nothing suggested that he was the dictator of one of the most oppressive countries in the world.
Against the backdrop of the chaotic, mercurial and capricious tone of U.S. foreign policy, the relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and Mr. Kim progressed from the language of “fire and fury” to a historic summit in Singapore and then “falling in love.” Now, both leaders are publicly anticipating another summit this year. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
This year will see a crucial test for real progress on taming North Korea. Success, a durable peace on the Korean Peninsula, will depend on careful economic planning – for example, on a new joint railway project.
Much of the unlikely progress was engineered by South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who made North Korea his top priority, even at the risk of losing popularity with some conservative voters at home. Yet, the situation on the ground is not as rosy as it appears to be, both on the Korean Peninsula and the broader Asia-Pacific region. In South Korea, the unemployment rate and economic stagnation pose serious challenges to Mr. Moon’s presidency.
The political situation in the Asia-Pacific region is getting more and more volatile. Nuclear weapons aside, geopolitical power dynamics are changing rapidly. Technological advancements such as drones, artificial intelligence and cyberwarfare are also changing the paradigms of power. At the recent Canada-Korea Forum in Seoul, participants grappled with an old adage – “it is the back of the shrimp that gets broken in the quarrel between whales.”
It is a telling analogy for a peninsula whose existence, at the centre of Northeast Asia, has always been affected by the whims of Russia, China, Japan and the United States. Caught between Washington and Beijing, Seoul finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to balance its political and economic interests.
The Trump administration has made it clear that the United States is no longer interested in heavily subsidizing costs for the defence of South Korea, a move that throws a lot of cold water on the traditional alliance. Reduction of American troops on the Korean Peninsula, stopping joint military exercises and renegotiating the terms of U.S. financial support for South Korea are all in the interest of China and Russia, even if these requests are coming from Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Japan has been reinvesting in its defence capabilities, using growing security threats from Pyongyang as an excuse.
The decline of American influence and strategy in the Asia-Pacific region puts Seoul at great peril. Regional history is clear: multi-power presence stabilizes, while creating a vacuum does the opposite. The ultimate carrot for Mr. Kim and the key to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula lies with tackling the root causes of North Korea’s economic insecurity. For the last few decades, we have seen the failure of politicizing the North Korean challenge.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s Canadian Pacific Railway was key to connecting Canada from coast to coast; the joint railway project between the two Koreas holds great potential for connecting the hearts and minds of ordinary people, and bringing Pyongyang out of its seclusion from the global market system.
There’s also the need to address the dire human-rights situation in North Korea, where millions of people are dying from hunger and malnutrition, and crimes against humanity are being committed every day. The humanitarian situation in North Korea poses real challenges to our universal values for human equality.
The multitude of challenges in North Korea requires a coherent long-term strategy. There is no clear blueprint to denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. But our task is to focus on what really matters, especially for the lives of 75 million Koreans whose lives have been paralyzed by the war that never really ended in 1953.
The railway project connecting two Koreas, with infrastructure development, food and hospital supplies delivery, and enabling the movement of people across the borders, will only be the beginning – but it will shape the sinews of a lasting peace.