38º Parallel North: What Lies Between “Double Freeze” and “Unilateral Escalation”

38º Parallel North:  What Lies Between “Double Freeze” and “Unilateral Escalation”

We share the same world, but use different world maps to chart it. It is exactly this geographic premise that explains why a Pax Coreana remains such a highly desired, yet hard to achieve goal.

According to a KCNA press release dated March 18, the first Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea(DPRK) conditioned the United States to “drop its bad habit and adopt a proper stand from the beginning” in order to reinstate the dialogue, warning that narratives such as "threat from North Korea" or “complete denuclearization” will not bring North Korea to the negotiation table. This statement is an important signal to Washington, having in mind that the new US administration declared that they are in the stage of reforming its strategy toward the Korean Peninsula.

It took over a week for the White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki to affirm, on March 29, that a meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong Un is not intended by the US President.

Monday, March 29, the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken responded by condemning the ballistic missile launches by North Korea on March 25 as a “serious threat” and said that the United States, South Korea and Japan were ready to approach North Korea from “a position of strength” in order to “diminish the threat that it poses to the region and beyond.”

Top DPRK military official Ri Pyong Chol accused Washington the following day of “gangster-like” logic for criticizing the “exercise of our state’s right to self-defence”.

While South Korea appears to have abstained from publicly commenting over the possible venues of future inter-Korean negotiations, it received several highly-significant visits. On March 17, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met his counterpart, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong. While Chung made no mention of North Korea and seemed to distance from the “free and open Indo-Pacific narrative”, perhaps in the light of the excellent economic relations with China, the two high officials certainly agreed that efforts for “devising and implementing a fully coordinated strategy toward policy on North Korea are vital.” Later on, on March 24, South Korea received the first visit of a Russian Foreign Minister in the last eight years, on which occasion the South Korean Foreign Minister affirmed that both countries “are together moving to reach peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula”. A head of state level bilateral meeting was envisaged in Seoul “as soon as the situation with COVID-19 stabilizes“.

Song Tao, Minister of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, during a meeting with North Korean Ambassador to Beijing, Lee Longnan, conveyed an oral highest level message, according to which “China is willing to work with the DPRK and relevant parties to adhere to the direction of political settlement of the Peninsula issue, maintain peace and stability on the Peninsula, and make new positive contributions to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity”, while with regard to the bilateral relations, China will “maintain, consolidate, and develop China-DPRK relations, promote the socialist cause of the two countries to continuously achieve new results, and better benefit the two peoples.”

According to the international media, on March 30, an urgent closed-door Security Council meeting to discuss the recent North Korean missile tests was convened. The same sources say that the U.N. Security Council took no action on the discussed subject. A few days earlier, the U.S. President Biden warned that Washington would “respond accordinglyto further escalations by Pyongyang.

This is the position scenario of the most interested parties on Korean Peninsula, besides the ASEAN member countries, which for sure will become the next topic with full tension of the year 2021, having denuclearization as the main focus, by continuing to reflect two diverging views over the situation in the Korean Peninsula.

On one hand, the “Double Freeze” narrative, also known as “suspension for suspension”, apparently supported by Beijing and Moscow, and most probably accepted by Pyongyang, calling primarily for a reciprocal and simultaneous suspension of the North Korean nuclear activities and of the South Korean joint military drills. On the other hand, for the West, North Korea represents not only a military – and potentially nuclear – threat in the region, but a defying and provoking actor to the international community. The competing narrative of “unilateral escalation of the situation in the Korean Peninsula has been repeatedly and consistently attributed to Pyongyang’s “military ambitions and human rights violations”. Starting from Obama’s 2011 “Pivot to Asia”, going through Trump’s attempts at bilateral negotiations to nowadays Biden’s firm stance on illicit arms programs, the Korean Peninsula remained a focal point of US’s Indo-Pacific foreign policy, continuously maintaining that denuclearization is a crucial first step in peace talks.

Essentially, the two steady yet diverging narratives bear upon every significant aspect of the Korean Peninsula from Reconciliation, Denuclearization to Peace and Unification, which might lead to the conclusion that, finally and most probably, the status quo will be maintained as well during the current year.

Regardless the different cartographic representations of the world, it is just as real – and very same – in Europe, as well as in Asia. The veer of narratives in North and South Korea, along with their respective supporters, shall never hinder the common aspirations for Peace – the basic necessity for stability on the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, however, the main protagonists of Peace in the Korean Peninsula are – naturally – the Korean people. It is hence their sovereign right to find the best solution that would turn the 38º Parallel from a border into a circle of latitude only.

 

C.S.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.