Hope on Korean horizon

Given years of hostilities, the first meet in over a decade between North and South Korea is at best a first step

By Author  |  Published: 6th May 2018  12:56 am

A milestone or an eyewash? On April 27, 2018, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to pursue a permanent peace treaty and complete denuclearisation of the region. It was the first such summit in 11 years and the third-of-its-kind since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, making it a historic moment. World leaders and governments hailed the summit as a step towards peace but also flagged the challenges ahead.

Credit must go to Moon who seized on the South’s Winter Olympics as an opportunity to broker dialogue with North. He said his meeting with Kim will help lay the foundation for the summit between Pyongyang and Washington. Indeed, the carefully choreographed meeting on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom has set the stage for the much-anticipated meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump, likely later this month or early June.

Panmunjom Declaration

Kim and Moon signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean peninsula, seeking to formally end the 68-year-old war. With a vague vision for peace, it barely touches upon most key issues — reuniting blood relations torn by war, implementing pacts signed so far, connecting and modernising road and rail networks, transforming the demilitarised zone into a peace zone, seizing hostile acts against each other along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) from May 2, guaranteeing safe fishing activity in the West Sea and carrying out disarmament in a phased manner.

These assume significance because according to latest government figures, 1,31,447 South Koreans are separated from their families since 1988. Of them, some 73,611 had died. A quarter of those alive are over 90 years old, and hang on to the hope of reuniting with their loved ones on the other side of the MDL.

For them, the two nations agreed to “establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides in Gaeseong to facilitate close consultation between the authorities as well as smooth exchanges and cooperation between the peoples.” They also agreed to proceed with reunion programmes for the separated families on National Liberation Day (August 15).

Denuclearisation Last

But, what about saying NO to nukes? The Panmunjom Declaration is all about restoring peace in the peninsula, but in a major disappointment, giving up nukes figures last on the agenda. This has made many world leaders look at this ‘historic’ meet sceptically.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg warned on the eve of the summit that the world must maintain sanctions on North Korea until “concrete changes” in its actions are seen. Seoul also played down expectations, saying the North’s technological advances with its nuclear and missile programmes meant any deal would be “fundamentally different in nature from denuclearisation agreements in 1990s and early 2000s.” “That’s what makes this summit all the more difficult,” the chief of the South’s presidential secretariat Im Jong-seok said ahead of the summit.

But, Trump seems convinced that Kim “isn’t playing around” this time. Speaking at the White House soon after the April 27 summit, he said: “I don’t think he’s playing, I don’t think he’s playing…It’s never gone this far”.

An Eyewash?

Last year, Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear blast, by far its most powerful to date, and launched missiles capable of reaching the US mainland. Its actions sent tensions soaring as Kim and Trump traded personal insults and threats of war. Trump demanded North give up its weapons, and pressed for it to do so in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way.

In the past, North’s support for denuclearisation of the “Korean peninsula” has been code for the removal of US troops from the South and the end of its nuclear umbrella over its security ally — prospects unthinkable in Washington.

Then what made Kim announce — ahead of planned meetings with Moon and Trump — that his country was ceasing its testing programme? The next day of the summit, the Blue House — the executive office of the South Korean head of State — quoted Kim as saying: “If we maintain frequent meetings, build trust with the US and receive promises for an end to the war and a non-aggression treaty, then why would we need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons?”

This is contradictory to what Kim earlier stood for. He hailed his weapons – developed over decades –as a “treasured sword” to protect the North from a US invasion.

Research by geologists at the University of Science and Technology of China sheds new light on Kim’s recent announcement. According to them, the mountain above North Korea’s main nuclear test site, Kilju, collapsed, rendering it unsafe for further testing and requiring that it be monitored for any leaking radiation. The data in the latest Chinese study was collected following the most powerful of the North’s six nuclear device tests on September 3, 2017 — believed to have triggered four earthquakes over the following weeks.

Deteriorating Ties with China

The nuclear tests are also of concern to China – North’s most important trade partner when it comes to food and energy (it accounts for over 90% of North’s trade volume). The test site near the town of Kilju is less than 100 km from the border with China. It caused seismic events in Chinese border towns and cities, forcing evacuations of schools and offices, sparking fears of wind-born radiation and leading to a backlash among some Chinese against their country’s unpredictable age-old ally.

When Kim visited Beijing in March — his first foreign trip as a leader – he said the issue could be resolved as long as Seoul and Washington take “progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace”. His visit to China came after the implementation of UN economic sanctions reduced trade between them by 90 per cent.

China and North Korea’s friendship goes way back to the Korean War (1950–1953). Since then, the South Asian giant backed North’s leaders: Kim II-sung (1948–1994), Kim Jong-il (1994–2011) and Kim Jong-un. The ties hit a roadblock in October 2006 when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon and Beijing supported the UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. After another missile launch in November 2017, China called on its ally to cease actions that increased tensions in the Korean peninsula.

But Beijing still has healthy economic relations with Pyongyang. Bilateral trade increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015 – it was the highest in 2014 at $6.86 billion — according to Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

India and North

After China, India is one of North Korea’s biggest trade partners and a major food aid provider. India’s exports to North Korea in 2013 were over $60 million, according to the CII. In 2010, it sent food aid – 1,300 tonnes of pulses and wheat – to North Korea when famine and flood hit the nation.

While it has been wary of the North’s craze for nuclear weapons and upheld several international sanctions against Pyongyang, India did not support the deployment of US troops in South Korea. Ties with North hit a low when Pakistan reportedly sold nuclear technology-related documents to North Korea. Also, North has spoken up for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.

Kim-Trump Meet

The much-anticipated sit-down of Kim and Trump is expected in the coming weeks and atop the agenda is the many US citizens reportedly being kept hostage in Kim’s land. The case of Otto Warmbier, a US student jailed by North Korea before being sent home in a coma where he died days later, is one among many. His parents sued the Pyongyang regime on April 26 for the alleged torture and murder of their son.

The other key issue likely to come up is withdrawal of troops from South Korea, which Trump clarified was “not on the table”. The US has deployed 28,000 troops in South Korea to “deter aggression and defend the Republic of Korea to maintain stability in Northeast Asia”. But, the Northern leader always spoke of trading denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula with the removal of US troops.

Trump seems to be taking credit for the Kim-Moon summit, claiming that he is now responsible for helping the two leaders turn the loosely-worded Panmunjom Declaration into reality. But US diplomats are sceptical stating that Kim was just willing to temporarily give up his hard-earned nukes in exchange for sanctions relief and economic assistance.

This is where Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes in. In his then role as CIA chief, it was Pompeo who made the initial face-to-face contact. “I am always careful. There is a lot of history here. Promises have been made, hopes have been raised and then dashed,” he said recently.

Former State Department official and Hillary Clinton’s aide Laura Rosenberger also sounds a similar warning: “…KJU (Kim) has learned how to play him (Trump) with hollow gestures… Also in all the coverage of hand-holding and hugs, let’s not forget Kim’s a brutal dictator”.

The Korean War

• Korean War (June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953) is popularly referred to as ‘The Forgotten War’ or ‘The Unknown War’ because it hardly got global public attention

• This is because World War II preceded it and the Vietnam War succeeded it

• World War II divides Korea into communist North, non-communist South

• North Korea’s Kim-sung II, backed by Soviet Union, marches into South Korea after clashes on the border

• UN, US rush to South’s rescue. Some 21 countries of UN send in forces to South

• US provides 90% military personnel, China secretly sends forces to North to counter US

• July 27, 1953: North and South sign an armistice, Korean Demilitarised Zone formed

• But no peace treaty signed until April 27, 2018

Panmunjom Declaration

• Improve, cultivate inter-Korean relations

• Implement all existing agreements, declarations adopted between the two sides so far

• Jointly participate in international sports events such as 2018 Asian Games

• Swiftly resolve humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation

• Convene Inter-Korean Red Cross Meeting to discuss/solve issues, including the reunion of separated families

• Reunion programmes for separated families on National Liberation Day (August 15)

• Alleviate acute military tension, eliminate danger of war on Korean Peninsula

• Transform demilitarised zone into a peace zone, strictly adhere to Non-Aggression Agreement