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What a Putin-Kim summit means for North Korean peace talks

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North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un is pursuing “a new way” to achieve his strategic vision, according to his New Year’s address. Ostensibly, it is a path for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, in the event the United States “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure” and “does not keep the promise it made” during the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

Some analysts assumed he was referring to a potential return to nuclear or missile testing, but a diplomatic initiative always seemed more plausible, at least as the initial option. If a summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin takes place before the end of April, it may well be construed as Kim’s inaugural diplomatic move to launch this “new way” to pursue the strategic objectives he failed to achieve in Hanoi.

{mosads}As Russia is also subject to damaging sanctions and pressure by the U.S., Kim might reasonably expect to find a sympathetic partner in Putin, especially since the Trump administration demonstrated an unexpected lack of flexibility in Hanoi. The Trump administration’s recent decision to send U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun to Moscow suggests it is concerned that Russia may waver in its commitment to maintain strict sanctions enforcement in the face of pressure from Pyongyang to provide relief.

As an additional concern, adding to the flurry of summit diplomacy around the Korean Peninsula over the last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit North Korea for the first time in May or June. The fact that he also is expected to visit South Korea on the same trip — and will have met with Putin before heading to the Korean Peninsula — adds even further complexities. The potential implications of a three-way, coordinated effort to weaken the impact of sanctions on North Korea are clear.

Another potential factor is North Korea’s recent call for “urgent food imports” that allegedly are needed to stem a potential food crisis. This appeal could provide a rationale for the provision of aid — under humanitarian exceptions to the U.N. sanctions — that would further undercut the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy.

Kim launched the inter-Korean phase of the “new way” immediately after the meeting in Hanoi. It involves ratcheting up pressure on South Korea to demonstrate greater independence from the U.S. Of course, while it is awkward for South Korea to say so openly, there is no gainsaying the fact that the failure to make really meaningful progress in implementing the detailed agreements negotiated during the inter-Korean summits in Panmunjom and Pyongyang is due to the constraints imposed by South Korea’s support for the U.S.’s North Korea policy.

By raising this sensitive subject, Kim is also engaging in tit-for-tat retaliation for South Korean President Moon Jae In’s often misunderstood efforts to positioned himself as a “catalyst” or “mediator” between Pyongyang and Washington. Decrying this self-appointed role as “meddling” in an April 12 address, Kim appealed to the South Korean authorities to be “a responsible party that defends the interests of the nation speaking what they have to say squarely with the [sic] mind of their own as members of the nation.”

Adding a unilateral twist that makes the appeal more controversial, Kim added, “they should sympathize with our stand and will, keep pace with us and make a courageous decision to show their sincerity by practical action, not by words.” This appeal for effectively a “united front” raises a critical question about the three actors — Russia, China and

South Korea — whose collaboration Kim is primarily seeking. Which of these three actors is most likely to be a “responsible party” in resolving the conflict on the Korean Peninsula in a manner favorable to the Korean nation?

The answer to this question may hinge on how the role of a mediator is defined. Most critically, must the third party be unbiased or neutral? Or can a biased third party be effective?

The point to note is that all three actors are biased parties, albeit in different ways. Even if a completely neutral party could be found, the conflict on the Korean Peninsula unfolded through the interactions of these three actors and the Korean nation — North and South — and it simply cannot be resolved by a neutral party without their collaboration.

While it may seem self-evident that an unbiased or neutral mediator would be more likely to facilitate the resolution of a conflict, there is a considerable body of literature in the field of conflict resolution that supports the view that biased mediators often are more effective in resolving disputes. This is because they are more personally invested in the outcome and hence more likely to stick with the effort for the long term. This also means they are more likely to develop a relationship of trust, even if more deeply with one of the parties at least potentially with both parties, if the mediator has a reputation for being fair and constantly strives to live up to the demands of this reputation.

Ironically, among the three actors, South Koreans truly may be the most effective mediators precisely because they are caught between the parties: the Americans with whom they share long-term, common interests; and the North Koreans with whom they share an existential, common national identity. For these actors, the role of a mediator is to be a conduit — or a repository — for the trust that is lacking directly between the parties themselves involved in the conflict. South Koreans are uniquely qualified to serve as mediators between Americans and North Koreans — not because they are neutral or disinterested parties, but precisely for the opposite reason.

{mossecondads}It is a very positive development if Kim’s primary response to the disappointing outcome of the summit meeting in Hanoi is to explore a “new way” based on a collaborative diplomatic effort. Indeed, he has acknowledged the importance of “the settlement of issues through dialogue and negotiations” in his April 12 address.

At the same time, he also has stressed that “the US-style dialogue of unilaterally pushing its demands does not fit us, nor are we interested in it.” It is not likely he’ll get significant pushback on this assessment from either Putin or Xi. Presumably, there will be limits to how much either of them will be willing or able to help North Korea square the circle with the Trump administration. Many believed that hurdle had been overcome in the lead up to Hanoi, but it turned out to be otherwise at the 11th hour under murky circumstances.

Moon reportedly received a message for Kim from Trump containing “things that matter to the current course of action” and “that have to lead to something positive” for a potential new U.S.-North Korea summit. Even if the gap between the U.S. and North Korea is not likely to be closed by this intervention, it is just another reminder that among the potential mediators in this standoff, South Korea is still the one with the most skin in the game.

Frederick Carriere is a research professor of political science at Syracuse University.


Tags China International Kim Jong Un North Korea Nuclear weapons Peace Russia South Korea Vladimir Putin

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