What happens to Korea peace talks when the smiles have faded?
Kevin Rafferty says last week’s inter-Korean summit left the participants and observers with a sense of palpable joy at the prospects of a unified, peaceful peninsula. That feeling may fade when Donald Trump arrives, determined to root out North Korea’s nuclear programme
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was grinning as he greeted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They embraced, held hands, toasted one another and promised an end to war and – finally – peace on the Korean peninsula.
It was tremendous theatre, but also heralded something which could change the face of Asia and the world. The two immediate questions are whether Kim can be trusted, and whether US President Donald Trump can live up to his responsibilities when he meets the North Korean dictator.
It was hard to imagine from the behaviour of the two leaders that North and South Korea have technically been at war for the past 65 years, having fought a bloody conflict that saw almost a million soldiers and 2.5 million civilians killed in three years. When Moon said he had never been to North Korea, Kim took him by the hand and led him briefly over the dividing line between the two Koreas.
The Panmunjom Declaration, which Moon and Kim signed, promises a wonderful new world: “The two leaders solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun”.
Ambitious promises include:
● Working towards a formal peace treaty to replace the armistice of 1953;
● Working “to rejuvenate the sense of national reconciliation and unity”;
● Closing down North Korea’s nuclear testing site this month and inviting foreign experts and journalists to watch its decommissioning; and
● Kim abandoning his nuclear weapons if the US promised not to invade.
This prompted Trump to tweet full-throatedly: “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”
KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2018
Not quite so fast: the Koreas need help in formally ending the war. The armistice that brought an end to the fighting was signed by US Lieutenant General William Kelly Harrison Jnr, representing the United Nations Command, North Korean General Nam Il and Peng Dehuai, commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. The US and China must be involved.
Also, there have been two other historic meetings between South Korean presidents and Kim’s father in 2000 and 2007, both of which went nowhere except to a resumption of hostility. There have also been other nuclear agreements with North Korea. In 1994, after Pyongyang announced it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it was prevailed upon to sign the Agreed Framework with the US, and got aid in exchange for freezing its illicit plutonium weapons programme.
This deal broke down after president George W. Bush was elected. Six-party talks including China, Japan, Russia, the US and the two Koreas led to an agreement in 2005 that North Korea would abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear weapons programmes” and return to the NPT. But the talks broke down in 2009 in disagreement over verification and a North Korean missile launch the other powers condemned.
What is different now? Most observers say that the mood is better, and note the genuine warmth of the meeting and the personal touches, including Kim telling Moon that he would not interrupt the South Korean president’s sleep with missile tests any more.
Trump’s supporters claim he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize because his pressure, including sanctions and angry taunts, finally forced Kim to come in from the cold. It’s equally likely to have been a combination of Moon’s determined wooing and Kim having reached his goal of becoming a nuclear power.
Since Kim took over from his father in 2011, North Korea has tested almost 90 ballistic missiles, three times as many as his father and grandfather combined. Under him, it has conducted four of its six nuclear tests, including one in September with a yield of more than 100-kilotons, more than 10 times more powerful than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima.
The question is why Kim, having invested so much in building up his nuclear arsenal, would surrender or dismantle it. Equally, it is fine for Trump to “distrust and verify”, and demand checks on whether Kim keeps his word, but Pyongyang has never permitted the intrusive searches that Iran did. If Trump now pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, as he has threatened, why should Kim – or anyone else – trust him? Will Moon, or Kim, still be smiling if Trump insists on tramping all over North Korea to see where nuclear facilities may be hidden?
A peaceful, unified, denuclearised Korean peninsula would be wonderful. It would present enormous economic, commercial, diplomatic and political opportunities, as well as challenges, for Korea and its neighbours.
More than 25 years ago, a brilliant South Korean Catholic priest, John Chang-yik, travelled on a Holy See passport, from Seoul to Rome to Beijing and Pyongyang and back, to look at Korean reunification in the light of the momentous unification of Germany. He returned shaking his head: it would be much more expensive than Germany and would require generosity and a leap of imagination that is lacking.
“North Koreans cannot imagine life in the South or vice versa,” he told me. “But to make it work, you have to have commitment and support from China, Japan and the US. There is little sign of that.” Indeed, in the years since, the gaps between North and South have grown, along with nationalism in the rest of the region.
Kevin Rafferty is a former World Bank official and Osaka University professor