Giving Peace a Chance
On 27 April 2018 at 9.28 AM Kim Jong Un stepped over a concrete kerb which serves as the military demarcation line between the two Koreas and assisted by a beaming Moon Jae- In, the South Korean President, crossed over. He was the first North Korean leader to have set foot into the South after the Korean War and that historical step raised hopes for peace in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
The visit of Kim Jong Un and the peace initiatives that followed seemed almost unreal in the wake of his earlier actions. Just a year ago he had conducted four nuclear tests, launched Intercontinental Ballistic missiles over Japan and threatened to obliterate Seoul in “a sea of flames.” It seemed that this volatile, impetuous leader, in conjunction with an equally volatile Donald Trump would hurl the region into nuclear holocaust. Yet, in a remarkable turnaround, he has emerged as the hero of an unlikely peace. And although it is too early to hope, the signs all seem encouraging.
It is not as if this historic meeting between the two Korean leaders was a sudden, unexpected one. It had been planned for months, if not years, with Kim first building up his missile and nuclear arsenal to negotiate from a position of strength and then sending his sister on a charm offensive to Seoul for the Winter Olympics to break the ice, going down himself to China to get them on board and even meeting Mile Pompey, the CIA chief, to set up a future meeting with President Trump. As a goodwill gesture, the battery of loudspeakers that send an incessant torrent of propaganda across the DMZ were also silenced. His actions were as meticulous as they were unexpected, but widely welcomed.
The Summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In promised to end the 70 year old Korean War and set the stage for a possible reunification of the Peninsula. The two Koreas had been one till the 20th Century, when they came under Japanese occupation from 1910 – 45. Following Japan’s defeat, the allies decided to demarcate the Peninsula along the 38th Parallel into the Communist North and the Democratic South. In 1950, the North invaded South Korea sparking a three year war that killed millions. The war ended in an Armistice, rather than a formal peace treaty, which means that technically the two Koreas are still at war. Yet in spite of the 70 years of hostility, and unbridled acts of aggression from North Korea, reunification of the peninsula is something that most Koreans hold as sacred.
For week, the most trending subject on South Korea’s social media has been ‘Jongjun’ – the end of war. Next is re-unification. Both subjects formed the key themes of the meeting and the elaborate symbolism reflected that. Mr Moon greeted Kim wearing a light blue tie in the exact shade of the original unified Korean flag. The two leaders planted a pine tree – the national tree of both Koreas- using soil from both nations and the waters of both their rivers. It was implanted in the DMZ along with the plaque “Peace and Prosperity are planted”. Even the Guard of Honour were dressed in the 19 Century costumes of unified Korea, armed with traditional spears instead of rifles. In the ‘Peace House’ near the border village of Panmunjon, in the same site where the Armistice was signed 70 years ago, the two leaders conferred on a 2018 mm oval table in a room designed to resemble bridges coming together.
It was more than symbolism. There was also solid substance in the Panmunjon Declaration that followed the meet. Their joint statement promised replace the Armistice with a Peace Treaty and thus formally end the Korean War by the end of the year (the official treaties would take time to formulate and would also involve USA and China), It promised to cease all hostile acts, declared the DMZ as a peace zone wef 01 May, agreed on a phased disarmament and confirmed the need for denuclearization. Kim, in a telling statement, promised that there would be no more nuclear or missile tests. Their joint statement was telling “The two leaders declare before our people and the world, that there will be no more war. A new Age of Peace has begun”
The first steps towards a possible reunification also seemed underway. The first thing Kim did when he entered the South was to adjust his watch (Northern Time is 30 minutes behind the South) and then declare that henceforth the two Koreas would have one time. The two Koreas decided on joint participation in Sports and agreed on a reunion of families divided by the Korean War. The emotional chord that reunification has for both Koreas can be gauged by the fact that just a day later, two North and South Korean table tennis players who were to compete against each other refused to do so, but instead paired up to defeat a much fancied Chinese team. Kim himself summed up the mood, “One language, one people. We should be one nation” Yet how far will he go down the road to reunification, is something only time will tell.
But this is only the first step. The more critical summit will be when Kim Jong Un meets Donald Trump on 12 June at Singapore. That meeting will determine the direction which North Korea will take.
The main theme of that meeting is likely to be
‘de-nuclearisation’ – a term that means different things to different people. Kim Jong has already pledged to halt all nuclear and missile testing (like India, he has done it after the tests have attained their aims) He has also agreed to shut down the underground test site at Punggye – ri - though the site is considered unusable now after repeated testing. Yet, is he likely to give up his arsenal and subject his weapons to scrutiny in return for a waiver of sanctions is a moot point. His nuclear capability has been his trump card and he would not let go of it in a hurry. Though he has promised to give up his nuclear weapons if the USA pledges not to invade North Korea, he would not do so unless he has cast iron guarantees. Trump’s ill-conceived decision to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal is also a potential deal-breaker. It has made the USA lose credibility and could also be a dissuader to Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.
‘De-nuclearisation’ can also be interpreted (as it is to Kim) as the complete removal of all nuclear assets on the Korean Peninsula, including the nuclear umbrella that the US has deployed there. As a further step towards demilitarization, Kim could also demand the removal of 12,500 US troops stationed in South Korea – another sore point. How the US would respond to that remains to be seen. Perhaps one likely solution would be that Kim would agree to forego all his long range ICBMs, thus removing the threat to the USA, in return of a waiver of sanctions. That could be an initial first step.
The re-unification of Korea has other parties with stakes in the game too. China, has professed its happiness at the initiative, but will not be too pleased at the idea of a united Korea, dominated by the South at its doorstep, especially if US troops are still stationed there. The power sharing between the two regimes will also involve much nit picking. Will Kim give up his authority? Will the South pay the huge economic costs to integrate the impoverished North? These issues will be decided by the fine print but the prevailing mood -especially in the South - seems to imply that the two Koreas could spontaneously integrate, just as Germany did with the breakdown of the Berlin Wall.
Peace Clouds over the Sub-continent?
The historic meeting between Moon and Kim took the spotlight off another momentous meeting – between Modi and President Xi – that promises to rebuild Indo-China relations after the friction of Doklam. Hopefully that meeting will be a harbinger of peace along the LAC and greater cooperation between the two largest economies of Asia.
The mood of the meeting was perhaps indicated by the newspaper, ‘The Global Times” considered to be the mouthpiece of the Chinese government which carried a bold editorial “Friends are often made after a fight”. Much ground has been covered since the stand-off at Doklam and Modi and Xi’s meeting at Wuhan was the culmination of the mending ties process.
In spite of the differences, and there are many - the border issue, China’s trade surplus, its blocking of India’s entry into NSG, its halting of efforts to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist in the UN – there are many points of convergence. With the USA turning inwards and acting as a disrupter at the same time, the time seems ripe for the world’s two fastest growing economies to come together not just economically, but strategically as well. Significantly Xi reached out for India’s support to counter the rising antagonism from Trump over trade issues. He also called for a greater convergence in issues such as climate change and global warming. Modi and Xi are to meet three more times this year, and these meetings could well pave the way for greater Indo-Chinese cooperation in the changing world order.
Another interesting harbinger that followed in the wake of the Korean summit, was a statement from the Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar JavedBajwa, stating that peace between India and Pakistan was essential for development in Pakistan – an unexpected turnaround from the usual line. It is tempting to draw parallels between the Koreas and the sub-continent, but ours is a completely different equation. Unification here does not evoke any chord, but peace - or at least an absence of conflict- between the neighbors is definitely desirable and if attained would be for the common good of both people.
The peace initiative between the Koreas, will bring a dramatic turnaround to one of the most volatile regions of the world. It may actually be a trend-setter for other troubled parts, notably the Middle East and the Sub-continent. However, the acid test of this initiative will come with the Trump – Kim Summit in June. Already the dark clouds of the abrogated Iran nuclear deal threaten to dampen the prospects of a similar deal with Korea. Will the abrasive personality of Trump wreck any prospects of peace, or will Trump, the eternal deal-maker actually swing a historic deal? What are the concessions either side are prepared to make, and how much will Kim actually backtrack on his nuclear road? That remains to be seen. So far, the prospects for peace are encouraging. But the eventual outcome is something that only time will tell.