Synthesis of the debate organized during the 2019 Normandy World Peace Forum.
Moderator: Jean-François Di Meglio, President, Asia Centre
Speakers: Barthélemy Courmont, Research Director, Institute of International and Strategic Relations; Mohamed ElBaradei, 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency
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Having been occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, the Korean peninsula was divided into two zones on both sides of the 38th parallel after Japan’s surrender. In 1950, the People’s Army of Korea invaded the south of the peninsula, supported by the USSR and China, triggering the Korean War, the first major conflict of the Cold War. In 1953, the fighting ceased and North and South Koreas have coexisted in an uncertain situation: the two countries are technically still at war, since no peace treaty was ever signed.

In the meantime, the geopolitical situation has changed significantly. The Soviet bloc has disappeared, China remains a communist country, having abandoned its economic plan to move towards the socialist market economy, and South Korea has become a regional economic power. North Korea has changed very little in comparison, remaining faithful to its Stalinist model.

Less densely populated than its neighbours (with a population density which is half that of South Korea, a fifth of that of Japan and a fiftieth of that of China) and with an economy which is radically less developed, North Korea nevertheless enjoys diplomatic prominence. Since 1985, whilst alternating between phases of détente and verbal escalation with the international community, the regime has successfully developed its nuclear programme and claims to be able to strike the United States with its nuclear missiles. However, this success has been achieved at the cost of severe economic sanctions against this poor country, where famine is a constant threat. 

In Mohamed ElBaradei’s view, it seems clear that the North Korean regime views its nuclear arsenal as a guarantee of security against the United States, which it perceives to be a major threat. Its nuclear programme has been skilfully handled: the North Koreans have been able to take advantage of the international community’s procrastination to create doubts as to their ability to successfully implement such a programme, particularly without the support of the former Soviet bloc.

Barthélemy Courmont notes that changes in US international policy over the years have served the interests of the North Korean regime. Bill Clinton pursued a policy of openness, promising American help to build nuclear power plants on North Korean soil and humanitarian aid in exchange for the suspension of the country’s nuclear programme. George W. Bush adopted a much harder line than his predecessor, even going as far as describing North Korea as a part of the “Axis of Evil”, along with Iraq and Iran. Mohamed ElBaradei adds that when the North Korean leaders witnessed the total annihilation of Saddam Hussein’s army during the second Gulf War, they undoubtedly thought they were to become the next targets for eradication by the United States. This probably encouraged them to pursue their nuclear programme, in Barthélemy Courmont’s view; indeed, the first North Korean nuclear tests occurred during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Barthélemy Courmont recalls that Barack Obama advocated global disarmament in a speech in Prague in 2009 and pursued a policy of openness, both with Washington’s allies and its “competitors”. This did not stop North Korea from conducting further nuclear tests, which were a source of great embarrassment to the Obama administration.

Barthélemy Courmont further analyses the relationship between Pyongyang and the Trump administration. Initially, Donald Trump sought to intimidate the North Korean regime, before adopting a much more conciliatory attitude, going so far as to declare that he “loved” Kim Jong-un. As it happens, Barthélemy Courmont describes the latter as “extremely predictable”, with a mentality which is “quite easy to understand”. For the Pyongyang regime, nuclear weapons offer a threat which opens the door to negotiations at the very highest level. It is clear that this strategy has worked: the meetings between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump left the entire international community with bated breath, recalling the USSoviet summit meetings of the Cold War.

Barthélemy Courmont does not think that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. He describes the skill of the North Korean negotiators, who focus on trading off concessions by accepting the shut down or inspection of certain nuclear facilities, for example. He feels that American diplomats were insufficiently prepared for the summit meetings which took place. Mohamed ElBaradei adds to this analysis; in his view, the two sides did not “play fair” during the negotiation process, with the North Koreans adopting an apparent attitude of openness, despite clear intentions to continue with their nuclear programme, and negotiators on the other side coming up with proposals in the hope that the Pyongyang regime would eventually implode of its own accord.

In Mohamed ElBaradei’s eyes, nuclear nonproliferation treaties have become obsolete. The major nuclear powers are not content to merely modernise their arsenal, they also insist on developing new types of weapons, such as autonomous military robots, in the name of national security. In his view, the concept of “national security” is totally misguided and the processes involved are not sustainable in the long term: democracies tend to crumble in the face of rising populism. He believes that the following question should be asked: “how can we learn to live together without the need for all these weapons?” Mohamed ElBaradei does not feel that North Korea is the principal threat to global peace: the Pyongyang regime is undoubtedly aware that the minute it uses nuclear weapons, the country will be erased from the map. The main risk for North Korea is an involuntary nuclear escalation based on a misinterpretation between Russia and the United States, for example. Leaders would have only a few minutes to make the decision in response to what could look like a nuclear attack.

Irrespective of the question of nuclear warfare, issues arise with regard to the conflict, which is still officially ongoing, and the region’s geopolitical balance. Barthélemy Courmont begins by analysing the North Korean regime’s position. Without its historical ally of the Soviet Union and with China becoming increasingly distant (having passed several resolutions on economic sanctions for North Korea), the country appears to be relatively isolated. It must also respond to neighbouring countries with larger populations and stronger economies. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the only way for the country to restore a certain balance, even if it is primarily a deterrent. North Korea therefore seems unable to prevail militarily over its southern neighbour and it is likely that the country would be alone in the event of an attack by an international coalition.

As for South Korea, Barthélemy Courmont notes that the population has been relatively indifferent to nuclear testing because the resumption of a conventional armed conflict is a constant and much more tangible threat: half of the country’s population lives in Seoul and the surrounding area, within firing range of North Korean artillery. For Barthélemy Courmont, it is possible that the policy to extend the hand of friendship, which was initiated by President Moon Jae-in and which breaks with the policies of his predecessors, will lead to tangible results. Clear signs of thawing relations between the two countries have already been noted, with Moon Jae-in going so far as to visit Pyongyang. Barthélemy Courmont declares that Moon Jae-in’s approach of not discussing the nuclear issue with North Korea to be intelligent; the South Korean President is aware that his neighbouring country will not give up its arsenal. Instead, he focuses on the possibility of making investments in North Korea and reuniting families which have been separated by war. Barthélemy Courmont concludes that the signing of a peace treaty no longer seems beyond the realm of imagination.

Mohamed ElBaradei believes that President Trump could achieve tangible results with North Korea, if both sides offer respective concessions, as part of an iterative process. In his view, dialogue must be maintained. However, Barthélemy Courmont feels that it would have been possible to bring about a far earlier end to the process if dialogue with North Korean had been accepted immediately.

He notes that North Korea is one of the last totalitarian regimes on the planet. As such, it is impossible to find out the opinion of North Korea’s civil society. However, in South Korea, the public is particularly engaged. Moon Jaein’s policy to extend the hand of friendship is supported by a majority of South Koreans but opinions may change if the expected results are not achieved.

However, the ultimate objective of each regime is not just to make peace but to reunify the country, in Barthélemy Courmont’s view. He see North Korea’s economic backwardness as problematic in this regard because he believes that the South Korean economy is not robust enough to take the strain of integrating the North Korean population and bringing its infrastructure up to standard. This explains why South Koreans are rather worried about the prospect of the North Korean regime’s sudden collapse.

Barthélemy Courmont and Mohamed ElBaradei both feel that the status quo would be an acceptable solution for North and South Koreas, along with the other powers present in the region. Mohamed ElBaradei emphasises that a reunified Korea could potentially become a serious economic rival to Japan. The idea of having a pro-American Korea with nuclear weapons as a potential neighbour is unappealing to China. Lastly, Mohamed ElBaradei notes that the official objective of the United States’ military presence in South Korea, Japan and Guam is to protect its Korean ally; in addition, it enables the United States to expand its sphere of influence in the region and to prepare for a possible conflict with China.

For Mohamed ElBaradei, the international community may have learned a lesson from the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, which did not contribute to the long-awaited restoration of the geopolitical balance in the Middle East: a fragile balance between warring parties can be considered to be a satisfactory conclusion, once the threat of armed conflict is contained.