Korean peace talks – third time lucky?

Insights , Insights , Geopolitics
08/05/2018 de Lars Kalbreier Temps de lecture: 2 minute(s)

The world watched with excitement as the North and South Korean leaders had their historic handshake last week. This was the first ever visit by a North Korean leader to the South and marked a sharp U-turn in politics between two countries which have been technically at war for nearly 70 years.

Disappointing negotiations in the past

Whilst these improving relations are very encouraging, it is worth noting that several peace talks have taken place in the past and they all led to disappointment. Indeed there were three instances where a peace agreement seemed very close. In 1994, Kim-Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader, signed an agreed framework with the US designed to freeze and dismantle the North Korean nuclear weapons program. In 2000 a South-North summit resulted in a joint declaration that both sides were aiming for peace on the peninsula and the reunification of Korea. As a result, North and South Korean teams marched jointly at the Sydney Olympics and the South Korean President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2007, both sides signed a peace declaration, calling for international talks in order to replace the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty. Again, as in previous instances, hopes were dashed as North Korea didn’t follow through on its promises and continued its nuclear weapons program.

Will it work this time?

So is it different this time and are there more reasons to be hopeful? The answer is a clear yes. This is mainly for three reasons:

  1. Trump’s biggest success factor: He has managed to enforce the widest sanctions ever against North Korea. Moreover, by directly accusing China (North Korea’s only ally) of undermining past sanctions, using satellite images to track ships delivering commodities to North Korea, and imposing sanctions on Chinese companies that didn’t comply, he gave China no other choice but to comply or suffer economic harm. Since China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, its newly found compliance resulted in crippling the North Korean economy, with Kim Jong Un even having to postpone large scale military exercises for lack of petrol.
  2. Past North Korean diplomatic tactics consisted of buying time in order to develop and master nuclear weapon technology. This goal has been reached. North Korea has proven to the world that it is now a nuclear power and is hence going into negotiations from a position of strength. As a consequence, it is therefore likely to negotiate more favorable terms for itself than would have been the case in the past. This is a sharp contrast to previous summits.
  3. Finally, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have found his match in President Donald Trump, who seems to be as unpredictable as himself. Unlike President Obama, who clearly indicated that he wanted the US to play a less active role in global geopolitics, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and his promise of  “fire and fury” should the US feel threatened, could have tipped the balance for Kim to choose negotiation over confrontation.

Whilst it is unlikely that Kim will give up his existing nuclear arsenal (he probably would demand a complete withdrawal of US troops from South Korea in exchange), the prospects of a signed peace treaty formally ending the war have never been better.


The CIO weekly thoughts focus and reflect on key topics, which caught Lars Kalbreier's mind during the week. It is more a free expression of thoughts to trigger healthy debates amongst the readership and by no means intended to be a strategy review.




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