Panel discussion: War, peace or something in between?

A DPRK stamp released to commemorate the intercontinental ballistic missile launch of 28 Nov 2017. (Photo: David Capie/Supplied)

The inter-Korea summit on April 27 was hailed as a turning point for the Korean Peninsula, with the two leaders agreeing to end the Korean War. International attention has now turned to the scheduled meeting of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12 – and the likelihood of that summit actually going ahead.

On 10 May, New Zealand academics gathered at Victoria University of Wellington to discuss the possible outcomes of the Trump-Kim summit in a panel discussion titled War or Peace? Predictions on the Outcomes of the 2018 North Korea-United States Leaders Summit.

Patrick Flamm, Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at VUW, chaired the discussion, noting: “Only a couple of months ago we were witnessing a serious nuclear crisis. Now we see a dizzying flurry of summits, with even the US President about to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. The question is, are we really closer to peace or war or something in between?”

All four panellists  Van Jackson, Shine Choi, Stephen Epstein and Dylan Stent  noted the difficulties of making any predictions about the summit.

‘Likely outcomes more dangerous than what we have today’

Van Jackson, senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, described himself as being a “very deep sceptic” about the summit’s ultimate outcome. “The history of North Korea relations with the US should lead you to no other conclusion than deep scepticism.

“This summit is going to produce losers. What’s debatable is whether it produces winners, who the winners will be, what will be won in a political or strategic sense. But there can be no doubt that some interested groups and states will have harm done to their interests on the back end of this summit.”

North Korea had “no theory of security for itself” without nuclear weapons, he said.

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons are in the preamble to their constitution, they’re ingrained in 25 years of propaganda, and they have an entire nuclear weapons industry around which infrastructure and people’s livelihoods are wrapped up.” 

Jackson showed stamps brought back from North Korea by fellow academic David Capie in April. Capie bought the stamps from a gift shop under Juche Tower; they commemorated the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch of 28 November 2017.

“This just happened and they’re just issuing commemorative stamps about it. The stamps were issued and presented to foreign delegations after the Olympics, after all that love and harmony. 

“You don’t do this if your intention is to get rid of nukes.” 

Jackson described three possible outcomes for the summit:

  • that North Korea committed to denuclearisation rhetorically but did not actually carry it out completely;
  • that Kim and Trump committed to a “more modest nuclear deal” such as getting rid of intercontinental ballistic missiles;
  • and that the two achieved no denuclearisation agreement but reached another agreement, such as signing a peace treaty.

All three scenarios could easily be packaged as a win, “yet all three produce outcomes in the future that are even more dangerous than what we have today”. The only outcome that would be safer would be full denuclearisation, which was unlikely.

roundtable NK 2 3

From left: Patrick Flamm, Shine Choi, Van Jackson, Stephen Epstein, Dylan Stent. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

‘Whose war and whose peace are we talking about?’

Massey University’s Shine Choi, lecturer in politics and international relations, agreed “denuclearisation” was not a likely outcome of the summit. But she queried what the term actually meant – and whose war and peace was being discussed.

“There is no serious North Korea or international scholar who studies this closely that says the summit is going to produce a scenario where North Korea agrees to dismantle and disarm its nuclear weapons. But what does that actually mean?” 

The various parties to the diplomatic summits had different definitions of denuclearisation. “For North Korea, denuclearisation doesn’t necessarily have to be according to the definition in the non-proliferation treaty.”

The nuclear weapon Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), relied on non-nuclear states trusting that existing nuclear states would abstain from using their weapons. Post-colonial nuclear states such as India and Pakistan became nuclear states outside of that treaty.

Choi questioned whether North Korea could agree to an international regime that said a US-initiated denuclearisation process could be trusted.

“North Korea is part of a broader, post-colonial, anti-imperial international order that is questioning the US-led international liberal order that we take as a given, is a good thing.”

She was interested in the new role played by South Korea’s liberal government. In the past, the two Koreas had been competing for legitimacy. Now as “the big brother who is going to bring about the new normal North Korea that has some sort of rational capacity to engage with the international nuclear regime, but do it in a way that’s not going to tow the line of the existing normal states”.

“For North Korea, denuclearisation doesn’t necessarily have to be according to the definition in the non-proliferation treaty.”
Shine Choi

North Korea not as ‘static’ as we think

Stephen Epstein, director of Asian languages and cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, said there was a sense of history repeating itself. “There have been meetings at high levels between the US and the DPRK.

“But it’s also very important to realise that we are entering unchartered territory with some very unpredictable players involved here.”

The outcomes of the inter-Korean summit on 27 April were not that that different to the 2000 summit. He had been in South Korea and turned on the television to see then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung stride out onto the tarmac at Pyongyang Airport in 2000 to meet Kim Jong-il. “That was a very moving, powerful and a hopeful moment, and I would say, much more so than what we had [with the April 2018 summit], because it was the first time it occurred.”

Polls now showed that the level of trust of Kim Jong-un in South Korea had increased significantly. Both Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il won popularity with the South Korean public after showing respect to their older South Korean counterparts – Epstein pointed to the fact Kim Jong-un had refrained from smoking.

Epstein did not think the Trump-Kim summit would lead to either to the “stark alternatives” of war or peace. “It will be something messy and in between.”

People had been predicting the imminent collapse of North Korea since the 1990s but it hadn’t happened.

He was more optimistic than other speakers that “moving towards peace may be possible”.

“There is a tendency to see that society as static, that it’s been in a dynasty that’s not going to budge. But other societies and nations around the world certainly change and progress. And there are many ways in which we are seeing social change within North Korea."

This year’s developments ‘nothing new’

PhD student Dylan Stent considered both North Korea and the United States were rational enough not to start a war. But despite media coverage in recent weeks declaring that the Korean War had ended, “the reality is far from it”.

He compared North Korea’s international relations to an episodic television series with six seasons; the first season beginning with the end of the Korean War. “It’s showing an interesting story of escalation and de-escalation. It also shows lies and deceit, and honest brokering at times.

“But what it shows developments like this year’s are not new at all. North Korea quite often agrees to things when it had no intention of following with them. It has actually officially declared to denuclearise on at least four occasions.”

– Asia Media Centre

Article by Rebecca Inoue-Palmer; video by Wei Shao