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M. Vogelaar: Address to World Summit 2020

Address to World Summit 2020, Seoul, Korea, February 3-8, 2020


You may admire my courage or suspect me of arrogance for daring to address you on Korean affairs as a European, right here in Seoul. Yet, Europe offers a different perspective on the Korean Peninsula, and vice versa, for two reasons. Europe has no colonial history with regard to Northeast Asia. And most European nations have diplomatic relations with North Korea, which allows us to be “critically engaged.”

May I start with a question to the audience? In which country are people most and where are they least afraid that a resumption of the Korean War is brewing? In the US almost half the population (47%) believes that there will be another Korean War. Only Turkey and Brazil have a still higher score. But a real surprise, at least for me, was to find that the least concern over a resumption of armed conflict in the region exists in a country that has the most reasons to be scared: the Republic of Korea, with 21%. Thus only 1 out of 5 South Koreans appear to be much concerned by the threat from across the DMZ. This is a surprise indeed, given the present geopolitical situation and the military imbalance between the two neighbors.

There cannot be another Korean War. The present one hasn’t even ended. But how can lasting peace be achieved? Peace – being the banner under which we meet at this conference – is more than the absence of war. It involves freedom, trust, tolerance and cooperation. For dreamers, peace is: no more armed conflicts, everlasting love and harmony. Sounds too good to be true! But if I don’t allow myself to believe, I might just as well give up being a Christian. And don’t all world religions offer a perspective of peace and love if we love one another, instead of quarrelling? For sceptics there always have been – and will be – conflicts, armed or not. Competition and violence lie in the character of mankind, they will say. Aren’t all creatures struggling to survive?

I’ll happily leave this existential question for others to sort out. What is new, though, is that for the first time in history mankind is now able to annihilate the entire planet. The nuclear capabilities of nuclear-weapons states have now reached such staggering levels in terms of explosive potential that our planet may be destroyed within hours, either intentionally or by miscalculation. In this sense, the nuclear doomsday machine that stands ready to be triggered to cause an apocalypse for God’s entire creation, is no less a threat than the climate change by which we are collectively suffocating.

I reckon everyone in this room, not unlike the roughly 75 million inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula and presumably the entire world population, is a warm supporter of peace. World peace! But what is world peace? A lot of commonplace definitions come to mind. But one peculiarly nasty aspect of peace and security is that it takes many nations to preserve it but that it can take a single one to unravel it. Building peace is a joint effort whereas war can be triggered by a single actor.

There is, however, a good side to all this: diplomacy! I used to be a diplomat myself. Diplomats are the midwives of peace. Politicians are its parents. Diplomats make it happen, provided that the effort stems from good will and sincerity on all sides involved.

During the 37 years of my career as a midwife, I have been struck by one “delivery” in particular that proved highly complicated, and that continues to give me headaches: the North Korean nuclear crisis. This baby got a name before it was even born: “Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Its mother has been pregnant for over half a century. Some pessimists claim it’s a stillborn, but I believe that it is to see the light of day at some point, although we are probably looking at a cesarean delivery. Normal midwife practices just won’t work in this case.

My first involvement with the North Korean nuclear crisis goes back to 1999 when I became a director with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Based in New York, KEDO had been created in 1995 to implement the Agreed Framework, concluded between the USA and the DPRK in 1994. The idea behind this arrangement was to deliver (we’re back to the delivery theme again!) energy supplies to the DPRK in exchange for a freeze and ultimately the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Our job in New York was to build two light-water reactors in Hamhung province, North Korea. Such reactors make it virtually impossible to produce the highly enriched uranium that is needed for the production of nuclear weapons. We also had to negotiate all necessary technical and legal arrangements that allow for such a complex operation to become a reality. I visited North Korea several times in those years. And Seoul, of course, where we cooperated closely with KEPCO.

Politics proved stronger than common sense (because KEDO was a sensible project!) when in 2002 the plan suddenly collapsed. The Americans found evidence that the North had secretly continued its nuclear weapons program. North Korea justified this by accusing the US of breaching the Agreed Framework by delaying its implementation. As we stood by, we the staunch supporters of KEDO – such as the ROK, Japan and the EU – watched the entire plan coming apart. All that is left is a few buildings along the coast near Kumho on North Korea’s east coast – a white elephant if there ever was one on the Korean Peninsula! Not to mention the disbursement of over 1.5 billion USD out of a total estimated cost of 4.6 billion USD. That bill was mainly footed by South Korea and Japan.

The Six Party Talks, led by China, tried to restore the peace process. But especially after 2006, date of the first North Korean nuclear test explosion, all further attempts availed to nothing much, in spite of the laudable and at times spectacular summits between North and South, and between the DPRK and the US in Singapore and Hanoi.

So why wasn’t this baby, called Peace, born, if everyone wanted it so badly? Let me limit myself to just two observations, and then make a suggestion from the sidelines, or from my European armchair if you like, on how one might break the deadlock. Because we are looking at a deadlock.

First, a military deadlock. The North has a stunning 1.2 million active soldiers, two times more than the ROK. The DPRK is also dominant in other conventional weaponries, such as their fleet of submarines. Seoul’s masses are within reach of the North Korean artillery. The DPRK is also believed to possess important supplies of chemical and biological weapons. And now the DPRK has even become a nuclear weapons state, with a number of rudimentary yet dangerous nuclear bombs, and with tactical and strategic missiles to deliver them to a whole range of countries. Unlike some other nuclear weapons states, North Korea is quite vocal at informing the international community of its newly developed capabilities and of its hostile intentions, should it be attacked.

Then there is the diplomatic deadlock. Washington wants CVID first; Pyongyang won’t negotiate before sanctions are lifted and does not seem prepared to give up its nuclear weapons anyway. Pyongyang’s creed is sovereignty and self-defense, not submission. Sanctions are hurting the DPRK’s economy but don’t prevent it from growing significantly as of late, albeit “with a little help from my friend,” as the Beatles would put it. Multilateral attempts to break the deadlock, like the Six Party Talks, failed. So did bilateral summits, at least so far. It is clear that the DPRK is not likely to be forced into submission.

Let us not speculate here on the reasons behind North Korea’s brinkmanship, which is laying an immense burden on its population. Many years before the Kim dynasty did so, Stalin used the argument that his country was surrounded by enemies to justify the heavy toll of self-defense. Let us rather take a look at how we may at last break through this crisis, which is keeping millions under threat and in misery, without a prospect for development and without human rights, and which continues to destabilize the region, if not the world.

Here I turn to my toolkit as a midwife for peace. Peace will take away the pain and ultimately cure all other problems. Peace is a precondition for the return of trust. And trust is a prerequisite for cooperation and, if desired, reunification. But how to trigger it?

All countries involved in the North Korean crisis are stakeholders. Hence, they should all be prepared to make concessions. In my view, the key to solving the crisis is to address the North Korean perception of threat. The regime feels surrounded by enemies. Hence offering security guarantees is the starting point. These can be put on the table as part of a broad deal which would – once agreed – entail a simultaneous implementation of the following five ingredients: (a) CVID under international monitoring; (b) a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War, thus accepting DPRK sovereignty and allowing for diplomatic relations with the ROK and the US; (c) massive development assistance and humanitarian aid; (d) lifting of sanctions; and (e) restoration of human rights.

Why simultaneous? A step-by-step approach like the Agreed Framework proved the wrong formula, in that any delay or other operational problem served as an alibi for the other side to suspend its part of the deal. This undermined mutual trust.

Obviously an agreement of the scope advocated here could never be implemented in one go. It would take years to make it work. It should also be reversible and unique. If one of the five components of the deal were not duly implemented, the other ones would be reversed. There would and should be no “second bite at the apple.” It would be a once-and-for-all deal, and probably the last chance to avert what so few South Koreans fear but many outsiders anticipate: war.

A gamble? Quite. But the risk is worth taking. Not gambling may have catastrophic consequences. And the risk is limited. The international community keeps the option of reverting to its present policy of pressure if North Korea doesn’t play ball. But if it does, there will be a huge peace dividend for some eight billion stakeholders. That’s all of us.



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