It has been hailed as “a new milestone”, “a historic occasion” and a “roadmap to peace”. But this is not the first political salvo between North and South Korea with the goal of complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and it won’t be the last. So what’s all the fuss about? asks Muhammad Sheik
There has been more emphasis placed on the symbolism and ceremony surrounding the latest Inter-Korean Summit than on the actual complexities attached to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
On Friday, 27 April, the table they sat at was exactly 2 018 millimeters across and designed to look like two bridges merging into one. There was a tree-planting ceremony, with soil and water taken from a mountain and river in each Korea, held at the 30-year-old aptly named “Peace House” which was the backdrop of the historic meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea this past week. It reads more like a wedding itinerary than a summit and it definitely got as much global media attention. Let’s face it, politics can be boring, so by sprucing up the finer details of a historic meeting, the Korean Summit was able to steal the thunder from the birth of the newest royal baby in a ceremonial affair akin to anything Windsor could set up.
In fact it was such major news that the international flight I was on at the time had more people watching CNN than the dizzying array of in-flight entertainment. The walk across the border elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from passengers as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a supposedly unscripted move, led his counterpart South Korean leader Moon Jae-in by the hand across the North Korean border before heading into the south for their momentous summit. As far as photo-ops go, it was pure gold. As far as diplomacy goes, the Panmunjom declaration could be a step in the right direction, only if sufficiently beneficial to the North.
Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat who worked on North Korea policy has said that “The Inter-Korean summit is like the opening move in chess. How you play it sets up the other possible moves that come after it”.
This is not the first time North Korea has expressed a willingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In 1994 former US President Jimmy Carter met Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder in a meeting widely criticised and advised against by then President Bill Clinton. Carter travelled to Pyongyang after US intelligence agencies reported that the North was allegedly processing plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
The meeting set in motion the resumption of talks which led to what was called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea halted the construction of two reactors that could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons in exchange for oil and the promise of two light-water nuclear reactors that could produce energy but not weapons fuel.
President Clinton would later agree to the deal, but Congress often delayed these oil shipments and refused to immediately lift sanctions, and the light-water reactors were never built.
In the intervening decades since the Korean War and the first talks held between the US and North Korea, it has been said that the end of the armistice would mean the resumption of war on the Korean Peninsula. All we have seen in that time however is more political posturing.
The demonisation of other nuclear armed states is a focal point of US foreign policy and part of a contrived campaign similar to that of the Bush and Clinton administrations when pushing for regime change in Iraq. For the United States and United Kingdom, the possession of nuclear capability is an intrinsic freedom and relinquishing these tools of war is almost unconscionable. The hypocrisy is evident for all to see.
Relinquishing a nuclear programme after developing sufficient nuclear capability to blow half the peninsula to smithereens is hardly progress. The growing spectre of nuclear war over the last few decades has been a major global concern to say the least. So the formal cessation and revocation of hostilities is indeed good news for all. But at what cost does this come?
Whatever the decisions of the two Korea’s, the position of Trump’s administration becomes more precarious. North Korea’s offer to use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool opens the door to negotiations of unpredictable length and inevitable complexity.
Trump will surely be pressured to make concessions, starting with North Korea’s perpetual demand that the United States withdraw all American troops from the Korean Peninsula. A move which will not go down well with the mighty military industrial complex of which Trump is just another cog in the machine.
Trump would also be negotiating alongside South Korea, a close ally that is hungry for a diplomatic rapprochement with the North. However this could constrain the maneuvering room for a president who has oscillated between issuing bellicose threats toward North Korea and voicing vague hopes that he and its leader, Kim Jong Un could sit down and broker a deal.
Make no mistake; Kim is not oblivious to the unfolding saga around the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s desire to renege after years of negotiations and diplomatic strategising. However, just as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is an extremely complex issue, so is the issue of denuclearisation with North Korea. To assume that the cessation of hostilities brought about by abandoning the nuclear programme will turn the Korean peninsula into a flourishing hub of peace and reunification is a gross oversimplification of the Korean conflict. It is one which has deep historical underpinnings rooted as much in issues of identity, ideology, and cultural constructs as it does in political prowess and international diplomacy.
If complete denuclearisation is to take place, it will not be a swift measure. Kim is not about to trade his biggest “Trump” card for total exposure without certain conditions being accepted by the United States and South Korea. Anyway you look at it; this meeting was premature and was at best a negotiation. This is not a done deal, nor an agreement of any sort contrary to several media reports which have surfaced subsequent to the summit suggesting otherwise.
Inter-Korean economic cooperation can only work to advance the interests of both the North and South if Kim’s regime feels sufficiently secure in any nuclear deal brokered by the United States. The question however remains, why should North Korea trust any United States sponsored deal, considering the events with Iran, or the fate of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya who had the hell bombed out of it after shutting down its nuclear weapons programme?
The sole intention of any political dynasty is self-preservation, and Kim cares far more about preserving his family’s political dynasty than paving a sustainable route toward a reunified Korea. But in order to ensure the longevity of his regime certain concessions must be made on his part as well. A reality he is all too aware of. While some may see this as an elaborate theatre of window dressing aimed at getting sanctions lifted – which it may very well be – there is little doubt that an end to this political impasse could benefit both North and South Korea significantly.
The Korean War (25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953) was one of the bloodiest in history, claiming the lives of nearly five million people, most of them women and children. Families were torn apart and today remain apart after decades of hostility between these two nations. It may have been two presidents at the table during this summit, but the voices of millions continue to echo through their actions. Trump and Kim are both polarising figures with short tempers and long memories. Their proposed meeting in the next few weeks leaves more questions than answers, and judging from their exchanges in the not so distant past, the idea of sustained peace on the Korean Peninsula could remain unrealised, if a mutually acceptable agreement is not reached.
Muhammad Sheik is a Current Affairs Producer/Presenter at Cii Radio and is currently studying towards his Masters in International Relations. He reads a lot, sleeps a little, and never forgets to stop and smell the roses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.