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Webinar Report: What Next for the Korean Peninsula?

27 May 2020

On 27 May, the EU-Asia Centre hosted a webinar ‘What Next for Korean Peninsula?’ with Anna Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the Korea chair at the Institute of European Studies (VUB,) and Duyeon Kim, Senior Advisor for Northeast Asia and Nuclear Policy with the International Crisis Group. The event was moderated by Fraser Cameron, the Director of EU-Asia Centre.

The panelists agreed that despite his recent periods of absence, Kim Jong-Un appeared to be confident and secure in his leadership of the DPRK. The ‘great leader’ was trying to ensure that the economy continued to develop despite concerns about the pandemic.

The recent missile tests were also largely about playing to the domestic base while reminding the world that the DPRK was still an actor.

The information on the spread of COVID-19 has been difficult to assess, but there seems to be no signs of a critical health crisis yet. However, the DPRK response to cut-off the all trade and travel with China and other partners due to pandemic have hit the country's economy. The economy and living conditions under Kim Yong Un have generally improved, which have become an integral part of the regime’s claim to legitmacy. But the economic deterioration from the Coronavirus lock-down and sanctions could become a threat to regime stability.

There was a consensus that the North Korean leadership will keep its nukes which are a credible threat. The fate of Gaddafi in Libya, plus the examples of Iraq and Ukraine, mean that DPRK nukes are seen as a necessary deterrent.

The US remains the main negotiating partner for the Kim regime which would probably prefer the continuation of the Trump administration, having largely figured out how to manage the relationship. The US willingness to leave allies in the dark has been welcomed in Pyonyang. The regime goal is to lift sanctions, end US-South Korea military exercises, and ultimately withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula. There remain some doubts about the kind of security guarantee that Kim would accept in return for giving up some or all of his nukes.

China was helping to ease the burden of sanctions, providing that the Kim regime refrains from provocation. China has not cooperated with US on the question of the DPRK and the matter could become larger part of the broader US-China political rivalry. However, the DPRK is not viewed as a bargaining chip in US-China negotiations.
Japan has currently little bandwidth for the DPRK due to Covid-19 and domestic issues. After the pivot from the initial strategy of maximum pressure to summit diplomacy, Japan has increasingly felt its interests ignored by US.

South Korea remains sidelined from the negotiations with the DPRK due to the view that it is subordinate to the US. Despite the election victory, President Moon has relatively little room for maneuver due to Pyonyangs unwillingness to engage, unless cooperation provides substantial revenues for the regime The barrage of insults from the North has also made diplomatic engagement difficult.

The DPRK has been a low priority for the EU and it has largely followed the US lead to avoid creating more issues with the Trump administration. The EU priority with ROK will be to modernize the bilateral FTA, though ROK seems more focused on its trade with China. South Korea was an example of an effective Asian democracy - and thus deserved more EU attention.