So far and no further

Amidst volatile but not critical inter-Korean relations,  Dr G. Balachandran examines how three major powers wielding the strongest sway in the Korean peninsula may influence Pyongyang’s behaviour

While tensions in the Korean Peninsula seem to have been increasing in recent months, they are still at far lower levels than in earlier periods.

Friction in the region waxes and wanes depending on the mood of North Korea’smercurial leader Kim Jong-un, and the current lower level is attractingparticular attention due to the high expectations of improvement in North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the United States. These were raised as a result of President Trump’s June 2018 summit meeting with Kim in Singapore, followed by a summit in Hanoi in February 2019 and another at the DMZ in Panmunjom in June the same year – the first ever visit to North Korea by a sitting US President.

In addition, South Korean PresidentMoon Jae-in held a number of summits with Kim. One historic meeting – the first summit between the leaders of the two countries in 11 years – took place on 27 April 2018 on the South Korean side of the Joint Security area at Panmunjom.It was the first time a North Korean leader had entered South Korean territory, and President Moon also crossed into the North Korean side for a brief time. This meeting resulted in a joint agreement,the Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Subsequently, both sides took a number of steps to reduce tensions in the Peninsula, including dismantling loudspeakers in the DMZ and committing to end the balloon propaganda war. In the 2018 World Team Table Tennis Championship, although the two countries entered separately, they fielded a joint team for the semi-finals, having been paired against each other in the quarter-finals.North and South also agreed to establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives from both sides in Kaesong area, to ensure close consultation between the authorities and to satisfactorily facilitate civil exchanges and cooperation. The Joint Liaison Office was formed in September 2018.

The April summit was followed by another in May on the North Korean side of the Joint Security area. More detailed talks were then held in Pyongyang in September 2018, when the South Korean President undertook a three-day state visit to North Korea, resulting in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration. This elaborated further on the Panmunjom Declaration, including normalisation of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and the Mt. Geumgang Tourism Project, and a discussion on the issue of forming a west coast joint special economic zone and an east coast joint special tourism zone, along with a number of other initiatives.

All these summits had a positive effect on lowering tension in the region and improving inter-Korean relations. One example of this is that North Korea did not conduct any missile tests in 2018 – a frequent cause of friction.

However, by early 2019 disenchantment seemed to have set in for the three major players who have the greatest influence in shaping the security scenario in the Korean peninsula: North Korea, the United States and China.

North Korea

Although both the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations promised a number of joint projects between North and South, they failed to materialise. The Gaeseong Industrial Complex, closed in 2016, is yet tore-open. Inter-Korean trade, which stood at nearly $3 billion in 2015, fell to $333 million in 2016 and a mere $1 million in 2017 as a result of crippling UN sanctions. It picked up briefly in 2018 to $31 million but fell again to a single digit of millions in 2019, where it remains to date. There have been no Inter-Korean industrial or economic cooperative project approvals since 2016, while the Inter-Korean Tourism Cooperation Project has languished for years with hardly any tourists.

The stringent UN sanctions regime, in place since December 2017, has put an end to all official international trade from/to North Korea,with a few humanitarian exceptions. All these have had a deep negative impact on the North Korean economy, with no end in sight, notwithstanding the various joint declarations.

Amid such disenchantment, North Korea gradually started to waver in its commitments made under the declarations. It conducted a short-range ballistic missile test (SRBM) on 4 May 2019 and, while it has not conducted any intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, it has conducted 13 other launch tests, including new types of SRBM and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

On the economic front, Pyongyang has managed to survive the UN sanctions through a variety of actions, most notably large-scale illicit imports of refined petroleum products through ship-to-ship transfers with DPRK vessels and direct deliveries by foreign-flagged tankers; large-scale illicit DPRK exports of coal and sand, using self-propelled ocean going barges and bulk tankers; and ship-to-ship transfers and direct deliveries employing comprehensive evasion techniques by vessels and owners.

Then, on June 16 this year, further frustrated by continuing balloon propaganda from the South, North Korea blew up the Joint Liaison Office in its territory.

The US seized the N. Korean cargo ship 'Wise Honest', accused of being in violation of US and UN sanctions

The United States

In addition to UN sanctions, the US has imposed even stronger national sanctions against Pyongyang. Despite President Trump’s complimentary references to the North Korean leader, Washington has been systematically enlarging its sanctions laws to target North Korea. However, it has been frustrated by North Korea’s attempts to circumvent the UN sanctions and the lack of a strong legal framework in many UN member states incorporating UN Security Council Resolutions in their national laws, which has allowed North Korea and its complicit supporters to exploit these shortcomings.

For instance, a North Korean cargo vessel,‘Wise Honest’, which was used extensively by North Korea in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions for the export of coal and import of heavy machinery, was intercepted and seized by Indonesian authorities in April 2018, not for violation of UN sanctions but for violation of Indonesian maritime laws. A district court in Indonesia released the illicit coal and approved its re-export by the same broker who had initially facilitated the illegal transaction because of the absence of such laws. The US then invoked its own national sanctions laws to take custody of the vessel and, through its own laws, to effect the sale of the vessel, though it has been stymied in its strategy to list such vessels in the UN sanctions list.

While the UN 1718 Experts Committee has, in the recent past, recommended to the 1718 Sanctions Committee thatmore than 30 such vessels should be listed, none has been listed due to reservations by some member(s) of the Committee (suspected to be China/Russia). Andthe US is now handicapped by the fact that it would have difficulty in getting any more UN sanctions resolutions against North Korea, given the current political environment.


China, as a permanent UN Security Council member, is North Korea’s major supporter, shielding it against any further international action for its violation of international laws. (It should, however, be noted that North Korea is not the only violator of international norms that Beijing protects; it haseffectively done the samefor Pakistan.)

There are conditions attached to Chinese support but, as long as Pyongyang does not conduct another nuclear or ICBM test, China will continue to support and shield North Korea.

In conclusion, while tension in the Korean peninsula may be higher today than it was a year ago, there is no immediate cause for panic. North Korea is fully aware of which actions it can take to signal its grievances, from short range missile tests to shelling in its neighbouring waters, and so on. But it is certain to refrain from doing two things that will panic even China: conducting a nuclear test or testing an ICBM.

Dr Balachandran was till recently associated with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis in various capacities as a Visiting/Consulting/Distinguished Fellow

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