US-North Korea summit can undo the historical mistakes that led to division
Charles Armstrong and John Barry Kotch say that the original Korean division was the product of a poorly thought-out American policy, and that the summits between the two Koreas and then between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump provide opportunities to rectify this mistake
This history goes well beyond the nuclear crises of the post-cold war era to the Korean war of 1950-53, and the division of Korea at the end of the second world war.
How did Korea, a nation with more than 1,000 years of political unity, become divided in the first place and what has been the United States’ role in the process?
Korea’s division was a product of Japan’s sudden surrender following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the second world war. The race to occupy the peninsula by US and Soviet forces after 35 years of Japanese occupation was an improvised affair, with the 38th parallel drawn as a line of military demarcation. It was the forerunner of a dual occupation of political opposites, each catering to Koreans of different political persuasions – leftists for the Soviets, rightists for the Americans – which subsequently hardened into permanent division.
The initial failure of American policymakers to follow the recommendation of State Department planners to administer the country “as a single administrative unit and not as separate zones” has been the driver of instability, the militarisation of the peninsula and unceasing hostility between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the US.
As the occupation wore on, the two powers found themselves at loggerheads over plans for a unified Korean administration and a multi-power trusteeship leading to the creation of a provisional Korean democratic government under the aegis of a Soviet-American joint commission. The failure to reach agreement on which Korean political parties and social organisations were eligible for consultation and, by extension, participation in a provisional government resulted in the collapse of negotiations in 1947.
Separate elections followed in the South and in the North, and two rival regimes emerged in 1948 – one sponsored by Washington, the other by Moscow.
With each government claiming hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula, a time bomb was created and exploded less than two years later in a fratricidal war. After three years of conflict involving 18 nations (including the US and China) and resulting in millions of deaths, the vast majority of them Korean, the Korean war ended in a stalemate.
Sixty-five years after the Korean war armistice – despite the end of the cold war, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the near collapse of the North Korean economy – the stand-off between North Korea on the one hand, and the US and its ally South Korea on the other, has remained as bitter and dangerous as ever with the peninsula still divided into mutually hostile regimes.
Friday’s North-South summit in the demilitarised zone, the first in over a decade and only the third between the leaders of the two Koreas, may have been a breakthrough moment, albeit one long on symbolism and short on substance. Kim’s “ walk across the border” to be warmly greeted by Moon and received by an honour guard resplendent in traditional Korean attire, harking back to a unified Korea before the Japanese annexation in 1910, could not have been more meticulously choreographed, emblematic of a hoped-for future Korean unity.
Now, the question is whether the two Koreas can build on this, overcoming their division not only symbolically but substantively. They will have an opportunity in future planned meetings, first between high-level military officials in May and a Pyongyang summit tentatively set for autumn.
But, first, the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, to follow in May or June, will test whether there is a path forward for a diplomatic process to resolve today‘s nuclear crisis peacefully in tandem with redrawing the geopolitical landscape frozen in place since the Korean war.
The process of denuclearisation is essentially a technical challenge requiring accounting for and dismantling North Korea’s arsenal of 20 or more nuclear weapons, the facilities processing fissile material, and ballistic missiles (along with their components and launching pads). Modifying the political and security equation on the peninsula and ending the cold war structure there, however, would require reconstituting relationships among and between North and South Korea, the US and North Korea, and the US and China, with the goal of a peaceful and stable peninsula, the only basis for long-term security and prosperity in the region.
Overcoming 70 years of bitter division on the Korean peninsula will not be achieved easily or quickly, and the Koreans may not see their country reunified for another generation or more. But a successful US-North Korea summit could lead towards real progress in ending the militarisation of the peninsula, allowing for the construction of a new relationship while enhancing the security and stability in the East Asia.
With the right strategy and under enlightened leadership of the kind evidenced by Moon’s bridge-building, radically different regimes could peacefully coexist, perhaps following the German model of the 1970s and 1980s or the “ one country, two systems” formulation of mainland China and Hong Kong. Such an arrangement would certainly be preferable to the tense and dangerous situation we have today, and could enable the Koreans finally to work out how to build a unified nation on their own, a task denied them by the short-sighted superpowers of the late 1940s.
Charles K. Armstrong is a professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Bridging the divide