By Prabasi Nepali
After the nuclear and missile testing by North Korea in 2016-17 and the exchange of verbal abuse by the leaders of the US and North Korea in 2017, no one in their wildest dreams thought that the path to a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula would be opened up with the beginning of the new year 2018. The credit for the new opening must be given to both South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, Kim Jong-un for following up on the ‘charm offensive’ and the dynamism and momentum of the ‘Olympic Games Diplomacy’. In a sense, both leaders had been underestimated by pundits of North-East Asian affairs – Moon for resurrecting the ‘failed’ “sunshine initiative” of his predecessors, and Kim because of the autocratic Stalinist regime in the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’, which had an extremely rotten international reputation, even that of a pariah. However, no expert had considered the educational background and past experience of the main antagonists, nor their respective collective national experience and history. Perhaps the main adversaries did not even personally consciously think about the path they were taking nor the possible repercussions. In hindsight, one can certainly say: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’, or as a famous Chinese proverb states: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step”.
Last Friday’s unprecedented electronic media coverage of the inter-Korean summit transformed Kim, perceived as a saber-rattling, brutal tyrant transformed into “the smiling, tactile, affectionate young man who strolled through the wooded glades of the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (DMZ)”, according to CNN. First, Moon welcomed Kim with pomp and ritual. For most of the day and evening, Kim and Moon were followed relentlessly by TV cameras and photographers as they perambulated through a series of intricately choreographed scenes in Panmunjom the “peace village” in the DMZ [which now will finally earn its rightful name] that was the venue for their many-faceted talks. There was the momentous, consequential instant when Kim stepped into the South, across the demarcation line that separates the two Koreas. The symbolic impact of a North Korean leader setting foot for the first time on South Korean soil cannot be underestimated. And Kim’s inspired and spontaneous gesture to President Moon to reciprocate his step into the South by having him join him for an instance in stepping back into the North was an ingenious way of asserting the equality of the two countries and their respective leaders.
This significant gesture softened the boundary between the two countries and hinted at the goal of unification that both Seoul and Pyongyang have long endeavored to achieve.
Then they held almost two hours of talks in the morning, planted a symbolic tree (with earth and water from both parts of the country), and strolled alone in sylvan surroundings of the DMZ where they spoke informally and intimately without officials for 30 minutes. They shook and held hands, embraced and traded pleasantries – “deliberately advancing a powerful new narrative of the two Koreas as agents of their own destiny” [BBC]. The vibrant message of Koreans determining their own future superseded past memories of a peninsula all too often dominated by the self-interest of external great powers, whether China (Imperial and Communist), Imperial Japan, or during the Cold War of the last century, the US and the former Soviet Union.
After further deliberations (lunch was taken in their respective parts of the DMZ to allow for separate and internal consultations), the substance of the talks emerged: “The Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula”, which commits the two ideologically different countries to denuclearization and talks to bring a formal end to conflict between the two nations. Friday’s dramatic meeting, “represents an unambiguous historic breakthrough at least in terms of the image of bilateral reconciliation and the emotional uplift it has given to South Korea public opinion,” according to Dr John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer at Cambridge University [BBC]. However, whether the declaration, “offers, in substance, the right mix of concrete measures to propel the two Koreas and the wider international community towards a lasting peace remains an open question.”
The joint declaration echoes the themes of past agreements, including the previous Korean leaders summits of 2000 (South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim’s father Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang) and 2007 (South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il), and an earlier 1991 bilateral ‘Reconciliation and Non-Aggression’ agreement. However, Friday’s declaration is more specific in its proposals, with the two countries pledging, for example, “to cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, sea and air . . .” and providing a sequence of key dates for the early implementation by both sides of a number of new confidence building measures. These include the cessation of “all hostile acts” near the DMZ by 1 May, the start of bilateral military talks in May, joint participation by the two Koreas in the 2018 Asian Games (August-September 2018 in Indonesia), the re-establishment of family reunions by 15 August, and perhaps most importantly of all, a return visit to the North by President Moon in the autumn of this very year. All in all an impressive schedule.
Committing to early, though incremental steps in the direction of peace seems to be motivated by the Korean leaders’ aspirations “to foster an irresistible sense of momentum and urgency” (BBC). The declaration also calls for future peace treaty talks involving the two Koreas, as well as China and the United States. According to Cambridge don Nilsson-Wright: “The logic of binding external actors into a definite – but evolving – timetable for progress on key issues is that it lowers the risk of conflict on the peninsula – something both Koreas are keen to avoid and which they have long had reason to fear given the past bellicose language of a “fire and fury” Donald Trump.” Unlike for the US, for the Koreans time is not of the essence, rather it is to achieve tangible goals by sustaining their dialogue and making progress step-by-step on the wide-ranging set of initiatives included in the declaration.
In his various interactions, Kim gave the impression of a confident and relaxed demeanor, easing the impression of a remote, rigid, autocratic leader in favor of a normal, humanized statesman, intent on working to promote the cause of peace and national reconciliation. His statements at the summit have been an emphatic argument in favor of identity politics, accentuating “one nation, one language, one blood”, and his repeated rejection of any future conflict between the two Koreas. This was surely well-received by South Koreans generally that is sympathetic to a narrative of self-confident, although not necessarily harsh nationalism.
The emphasis on Koreans determining their common future is well and good, but there is the definite and decisive importance of the US in resolving the future course of events – after all, the US is acutely threatened by the North’s ICBMs. The much anticipated Trump-Kim summit in May or early June will be crucial in testing the sincerity of the North’s commitment to a peaceful settlement – and the American capability of negotiating with skill and equanimity. At the same time, Pyongyang’s professed commitment to “denuclearization” and the timeline is surely quite different and nuanced from Washington’s demand for [immediate] “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament” [CVID]. President Moon has astutely and repeatedly given President Trump the credit for the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations to enhance the US president’s inflated ego as a stratagem to minimize the threat of war and keeping him engaged in dialogue with the North. Trump himself was very impressed with the events at the DMZ, and according to latest reports Moon has convinced him to also hold the US-North Korea summit there. Moon could perhaps play a crucial supplementary role!
Fazit: The North-East Asian expert Nilsson-Wright stresses that regardless of the long-term, substantive consequences from the Panmunjeom summit, “the event has memorably showcased the political astuteness, diplomatic agility and strategic vision of both Korean
leaders.” It remains to be seen whether Trump and his national security team has the wherewithal to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, Trump has demonstrated time and again that he knows very little of International Relations in all its ramifications, and he may very well endanger peaceful progress in the Korean peninsula by his antics in a complete different theatre – by torpedoing the international Iran nuclear deal. As the Cambridge don further notes: “The dramatic events of Friday are a reminder that personality and leadership are key ingredients in effecting historical change, sometimes allowing relatively small powers to advance their interests in spite of the competing interests of larger, more influential states.”
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