Breaking Deadlock on the Korean Peninsula? Four Perspectives

Focus Asia February 5, 2018


Can the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula be resolved and how? What are the strategic interests of the parties and their differences? What steps are needed to prevent tensions from escalating further? In seeking to answer these questions, this paper brings together the views of four senior experts from China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to each share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities ahead. (read the full paper here)


After the dramatic escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula in 2017, the resumption of dialogue between North and South Korea in the lead up to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has brought hope that it may yield movement in deescalating the situation and enable finding a path back towards the negotiation table for all parties. Fundamental obstacles remain, however, which put in question the sustainability of any thaw in relations, chief of which is the intractability of positions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

To encourage debate, and provide an equal platform for all sides, ISDP invited four experts from China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States, respectively, to each share their perspectives on the considerable challenges but also opportunities ahead in breaking the deadlock on the Korean Peninsula.

It should be noted that the authors here write strictly in their personal capacity, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of their governments. Beyond providing a forum for debate, ISDP takes neither a position on, nor responsibility for, any of the arguments made in this paper.

In the opening piece, Ryang Tong Il from the Institute of Disarmament and Peace in North Korea writes that his country’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent is aimed at checking U.S. aggression. Having achieved this objective, he argues that a strategic balance of power has been created on the Korean Peninsula that creates a conducive environment for inter-Korean relations to develop peacefully. Arguing that it is a “pipedream” that North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons, he further sees the nuclear issue as having “nothing to do with inter-Korean relations.” In so doing, he urges South Korea to “squarely see this stark reality” and improve relations without external interference. Accordingly, looking ahead, he argues that the U.S. and South Korea should go beyond postponement to putting an end to what he terms as all-too-dangerous joint military exercises.

In the next contribution, Joon Hyung Kim of Handong Global University in South Korea, argues that while North Korea’s denuclearization is not likely to be realistic in the short term, it cannot be abandoned as a goal. As such, he argues for greater trilateral cooperation and coordination between the U.S., South Korea, and China. For this to be effective, he argues, there needs to be a division of labor in which the U.S. and China maximize leverage, while South Korea initiates dialogue with North Korea at the same time as it mediates between the U.S. and China. In assessing current U.S. policy, he criticizes the Trump administration for its hardline rhetoric that has personalized tensions between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, as well as exerting pressure on China which he sees as counterproductive if Beijing is to wield its leverage over North Korea.

In his article, Zhu Feng, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, China, also calls for greater coordination between the U.S., China, and South Korea as part of a strategy of “shared responsibilities.” He argues that North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs have turned it more into a strategic liability than an asset for China. While recognizing that North Korea needs to be provided with security assurances that respect its survival, he asserts that clear implications should be spelt out to Pyongyang in the case of further nuclear or ICBM tests. He further argues, however, that any successful strategy must be “directed not only at denuclearization, but also at the abolition of the Cold War-like hostility on the Korean Peninsula.”

Finally, Abraham Denmark of the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., warns that the U.S. and North Korea are on a “collision course” as a result of the latter’s nuclear and missile programs. He argues that denuclearization is likely to remain the goal of the U.S. in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, in the absence of a resolution, there is a need to avoid conflict and manage tensions. As such, he proposes a diplomatic offensive towards a freeze on North Korea’s testing of nuclear devices and ballistic missile tests. Key to this, he argues, would be an “internal American understanding of what combination of concessions it would be willing to put on the table.” Another constructive step would be the establishment of military-to-military channels to reduce the dangers of strategic miscalculation and misunderstanding. Notwithstanding, he upholds the view that the U.S. and its allies also need to maintain a credible deterrent to North Korea’s threats.

We hope that the reader finds this paper useful to compare and contrast the different positions and perspectives. In so doing, we make no pretense that a solution can be found within them. In fact, if anything, the gap in security perceptions between North Korea and the other authors illustrated here would appear to point to few opportunities for a negotiated resolution, at least in the foreseeable future. But while the authors may differ on much, all are agreed that any escalation of crisis is in no side’s interest and that management of the conflict, and its ultimate resolution, can only be found through non-military means. In the shorter term, from ISDP’s perspective, this points to the need for increased focus on crisis management and the adoption of confidence- and security-building measures. It is only a de-escalation of military tensions that, in the end, will create a more favorable security environment for dialogue to have a chance to succeed.

For over a decade, ISDP has through its Korea Project provided a platform for discussion and debate between Northeast Asia experts focused on security issues on the Korean Peninsula. As such, it is committed to sharing different perspectives on important issues so as to enable constructive debate.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors only and do not
necessarily reflect those of ISDP or its sponsors.