North Korea is challenging the world’s preconceptions
April and May have seen the world focused on the changing political dynamics in the Korean Peninsula.
There has been symbolism, show of pomp, exhibition of rituals and tradition. Both South and North Korea, inspired through their common participation during the Winter Olympics, have tried to reach the plateau of least common denominators. It has been a fascinating exercise.
The dramatic meeting of April 27 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Chairman Kim Jong-un, represented a historic breakthrough at least in terms of the image of bilateral reconciliation.
It also provided an emotional uplift for the common people in both parts of the Korean Peninsula. There were also the choreographed scenes of the two leaders chatting informally and intimately in the open air -- thereby cleverly advancing the powerful new narrative of the two Koreas being agents of their own destiny. Subsequently, handshakes, broad smiles, and bear hugs underlined this message of Koreans determining their own future against a background where the Peninsula is only viewed in terms of dictated self-interest of external great powers -- be it China, Japan, or the United States.
The Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula presented before the media was another step that allowed North Korean President Kim to challenge the world’s preconceptions.
It helped dispel the picture of him being a rigid, autocratic leader in favour of a humanised statesman, intent on working to advance the cause of peace and national reconciliation. In a manner of speaking, it was a propaganda victory for Mr Kim.
It also denoted that the world needs to recognize the nuclear and missile advances that had been achieved by the North. Consequently, by calling for “phased … disarmament” and intentionally downplaying the expectation of immediate progress while emphasizing the need for step-by-step negotiations, Kim established his own terms of reference.
This approach, according to some analysts, echoed the themes of past efforts during the previous Korean leader’s summits of 2000 and 2007, and also in the 1991 bilateral reconciliation and non-aggression agreement.
This time, like in past agreements, plans were also put forward to establish joint liaison missions, military dialogue and confidence building measures, economic co-operation, and the expansion of contact between the citizens of the two countries. However, this time, in addition, the declaration of April 27 has also seen the two countries pledging, for example, “to cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, sea and air …” and providing a series of key dates for the early implementation by both sides of a raft of new confidence building measures.
These include the cessation of “all hostile acts” near the demilitarized zone by May 1, the start of bilateral military talks in May, joint participation by the two Koreas in the 2018 Asian Games, the re-establishment of family reunions by August 15, and, perhaps most importantly of all, a return visit to the North by President Moon’s by the autumn of this year. This made the future dynamics more specific and is likely to foster more momentum and urgency.
These are good developments, but we need to wait a little longer for the final outcome
In para 3, sub-para (3) of the declaration, both sides have also declared that “during this year (2018) that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armstice Agreement, South and North Korea have agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the US, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the US, and China with a view to declaring an end to the war and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”
The logic behind this approach of including external actors has been interpreted by many as an understanding that would lower the risk of conflict on the peninsula -- something that, over the last year, has led to aggressive language from US President Donald Trump.
The expanding of the equation has obviously been triggered off because of the pro-active nature of the efforts that have already been carried out surreptitiously by Trump, Kim, and the Chinese president. This will also provide President Moon with a stronger base given that he is at the start of his five-year presidency -- in marked contrast to the earlier summits of 2000 and 2007, when the respective leaders of the South, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, were already well into their presidential terms.
This enlarged equation will enable Moon to count on possible repeat meetings with Kim, sustaining their dialogue and making progress on the wide-ranging set of initiatives included in the declaration.
Such a movement forward also reiterates the decisive importance of the US and China. President Trump in his own way has already acknowledged the importance of China in this evolving process. On April 27 he tweeted that we should “not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the US, particularly at the border of North Korea. Without him, it would have been a much longer, tougher, process.”
President Moon has also cleverly and repeatedly allowed Trump to assume credit for the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, recognizing perhaps that boosting the US president’s ego was the best way of minimizing the risk of war and keeping Trump engaged in dialogue with North Korea.
Moon’s discussion on the phone with Trump immediately after his meeting with Kim also underlined his political astuteness and strategic vision. Moon and Trump also spoke separately to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who praised the success of the summit as long as it leads to “concrete action” on part of North Korea.
The much anticipated Trump-Kim summit in May or early June will be critical in determining the sincerity of North Korea’s commitment to a peaceful settlement. Pyongyang’s professed pledge to “denuclearization” is likely to be the subject of minute analysis.
It might also be very different from Washington’s demand for “comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible” nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, this summit could also be the subject of scrutiny for measuring the gap between the US and North Korea on this issue. It will also be an important opportunity to ascertain how far the US and Japan have developed their own strategy for narrowing the differences with the North.
This has assumed particular significance with a statement issued on April 29 by the South Korean president’s office that North Korea’s nuclear test site in Punggye-ri will close down in May. Presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan has also said that Mr Kim had conveyed that he “would carry out the closing of the nuclear test site in May” and that he “would soon invite experts of South Korea and the US to disclose the process to the international community with transparency.”
Laura Bicker of the BBC has also reported that Kim told President Moon that he hoped trust could be built with the US and reiterated that there would be no need for him to have nuclear weapons if they formally ended the war on the Korean Peninsula.
He has also apparently underlined that once Washington spoke to him, they would know that North Korea would not be an aggressor. He has also taken the symbolic step of matching the time zone in the North with that of the South to reiterate his good intentions.
These are good developments, but we need to wait a little longer for the final outcome.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]