Thaw In The Korean Peninsula?


An agreement between the US and China holds greater lever for peace in the Peninsula

After 65 years under the psychology of conflict, antagonism and nuclear brinkmanship, the world sighed in some relief as President Moon Jae-in of South Korea shook hands and embraced Kim Jong-un of North Korea at a recent special summit at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). What was especially pleasing is the open declaration by both leaders of an intention to set in motion the diplomatic processes to formally end the Korean War which has remained in animated suspension for the better part of the last half century.

This of course was not the first time that leaders of both countries would stage an elaborate diplomatic drama to catch global attention and mostly lessen international pressure on North Korea especially. It happened in 2000 and 2007 with elaborate summits that came to naught. But the recent summit featured hitherto unthinkable optics, soothing words and symbolic gestures of amity and kinship between leaders of the two states with the same people, a common language and culture but split into irreconcilable ideological differences by the logic of world history.

To give universal stamp to an agreement to end the war, a permanent agreement than the Korean Armistice of 1953 that suspended the conflict will have to be endorsed and witnessed by all parties to the original dispute under UN supervision.

However, the Korea summit was historic in many ways. It came against the background of loud sabre rattling between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear war games, apocalyptic rehearsals and bellicose rhetoric. President Donald Trump had, quite undiplomatically, took on the hermit kingdom of North Korea with its young and brash authoritarian leader. A barrage of sanctions by the US and its allies coupled with trade related pressure on China may have helped to escort Kim to rediscover the value of his Korean kinship south of the DMZ.

The reaffirmation of the kinship ties between the two Koreas may not be a development that Trump worked to achieve. If the development leads to Korean reunification, it will radically redraw the map of US influence in South East Asia by making the basing of American troops and placing deterrence hardware in South Korea unnecessary in the long term. The fruits would go to a more secure and largely undeterred China. For the US and the rest of the world the ultimate value of peace in the Korean Peninsula would be the pursuit of ultimate denuclearisation of the Peninsula.

However, denuclearisation as an ultimate strategic goal may not happen immediately but at least an arms limitation talk may begin. The possession of nuclear capability has for long been part of the identity and survival kit of North Korea. To expect that Kim will be in a hurry to shed that cultural identity would be naive considering that regime survival is a fundamental principle of North Korean state policy.

The best way to achieve denuclearisation would be to incrementally use South Korea to re-invite North Korea back into the fold of responsible nations with the benefits of trade and humanitarian assistance. This objective is also in the national interest of South Korea which ought to see the materially deprived North Korean population as a potential market next door.

Yet North Korea has spent too much time out in the wild cultivating the bad habits of a rogue state. It needs to understand that only states whose behaviour does not cause others discomfort can enjoy the full benefits of community in an international sense. Perhaps the fullest potential of the possibilities in the Korea situation should await the much anticipated meeting between President Trump and his North Korean counterpart. Ironically, an agreement between the US and China holds greater lever for peace in the Peninsula than the symbolic gestures between the two Koreas.