Reaching a deal on the Korean Peninsula
Soon after the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea is once again in the international spotlight. On 27 April, it hosted a long-anticipated inter-Korean summit on its territory for the first time in history. The highly choreographed meeting was held between the two lead actors almost exactly as scripted. Nonetheless, many impromptu moments of congeniality highlighted the eagerness on the part of the two sides to make this summit a success. The leader of the most secluded nation on the globe, Kim Jong-un, made an impressive debut, as much of the world cheered at what just a few months ago seemed unimaginable. After declaring that he had come to ‘put an end to the history of confrontation’, Kim, jointly with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, promised to take steps to turn the existing armistice into a peace treaty and to realise a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Moon’s big gamble on North Korea seems to have paid off – at least for now.
The best diplomacy fuses symbolism and substance, takes risks in order to build confidence, advances interests while listening to the other side, invites in the public but gives leaders the space needed for authentic dialogue. The recent summit held between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un appears to have done all these essential things. The resulting Panmunjom Declaration to which they affixed their signatures sets up a widely-anticipated summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump – to be held in June in Singapore – while consolidating the foundation for building the three pillars of denuclearization, peace and inter-Korean reconciliation. The road ahead will be rocky, and nothing is assured. But the Kim-Moon summit put diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula off to a very good start.
Reading the Tree Leaves
From the moment when Kim Jong-un spontaneously invited Moon Jae-in to step over the line to the North (presumably causing a momentary panic among South Korean secret service agents), the third Inter-Korean Summit took on a life of its own. Moon had asked when he would have a chance to travel to Pyongyang, so Kim impishly suggested, “Why not right now?” The two men – physical opposites, one young, short, stout; the other old, medium-height, svelte – clasped hands and crossed the line, back and forth. By traversing the line into forbidden territory, Kim and Moon signalled to one another, and to their publics, a will to go beyond the status quo in the direction of reconciliation and peace.
After a morning discussion session and noontime break, Moon and Kim officiated over a ritualistic tree planting that was heavy in the symbolism of Korean unity. They sprinkled the ground with soil from Paektu and Halla mountains and water from the Taedong and Han rivers, a reminder that geography is destiny. The transplanted tree itself dated to 1953, the year of the Armistice Agreement to suspend the Korean War. That year was not a self-evident choice. The historical moment of division was 1945, when the US and Soviet authorities agreed to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel. The date of political division was 1948, when Seoul declared the Republic of Korea and Pyongyang followed suit by proclaiming the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And the Korean War – the moment when division was sealed in blood – erupted in 1950. So, 1953 was a deliberate choice, one that symbolically reaffirmed a key goal of the summit of transforming the “armistice regime” into a “peace regime.”
“Reunification” is likely to remain central to identity politics and geopolitical discourse in both the North and in the South. But the symbolism of the tree, and substance of the Declaration, embraces the paradigm of ending the war, which is not the same thing as ending the division. “Peaceful coexistence” could serve as a path to reunification, but the two are certainly not synonymous. It is hard to know the real views toward reunification among the North Korean elite or the public at large. There may be significant ambivalence toward the prospect of reunification any time in the near future, given how far the North lags behind the South. South Koreans, especially the younger generation, are openly ambivalent. A vast majority of people wants the artificial division ended eventually – but are in no particular rush to get there. An extended period of learning to get along and get reacquainted, “peaceful coexistence” in other words, would be perfectly acceptable to most South Koreans.
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