Korean reconciliation - Between cynics and optimists | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 04, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:01 PM, May 05, 2018

Korean reconciliation - Between cynics and optimists

The optimists see the historic events of April 27, 2018 in the Peace Village in the demilitarised zone at Panmunjom, which happens to be the only contact point between two countries but one nation, as the foundation for a permanent reconciliation and enduring peace. The skeptics would like to agree but attach a rider of uncertainty. They wonder at Kim's climb down from the high horse and willingness to engage, and would rather wait to see more details spelt out and eventual delivery of the commitments, particularly from the part of North Korea, since they fear that there may yet be more between the mouth and the morsel than the optimists might admit.

Extreme views apart, nothing should detract from the historic importance of the event. Whatever may have been the causative factors that led to the historic summit, both Moon and Kim must be credited for being able to come out of the old mind frame and pounce on the sliver of opportunity opened up by an international sporting event in the form of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. North Korea had not been willing to sit with the leaders of the South before 2000, since it considered the South an occupied territory under the US and thus had no political locus standi. Thus Kim agreeing not only to meet, but also, unlike the other two previous occasions which did not produce anything positive (except provide a temporary breathing space for the North Korean ruler), agreeing on substantive actions that promise a lot on its part—this is remarkable indeed. The optimists feel that the April meeting holds out hope for the two peoples and for the entire region and the world. At least one less point on the globe in a state of constant simmer. And one hopes that Moon's very firm affirmation that the Peninsula would see no more war would be a permanent reality.

The reason for waiting to taste the pudding before delivering a judgment is North Korea's past record. Since it had weaseled out of the commitment it made in the past to denuclearise, there is every reason for the skeptics not to take him at his words. Also, many of the doables that the Koreas have laid out in the joint statement would need active contribution of the other stakeholders—they being also the major parties to the conflict and signatories to the armistice, the US and China.

There are good reasons why Kim's grandfather had reneged on his promise to get rid of the nuclear weapons, and there are good reasons too for the remarkable turnaround on the part of Kim, apart from the pains of sanctions and choosing to do so having till recently traded rhetoric with Trump and carried out more ballistics and nuke tests during his short tenure than did his father and grandfather combined (nearly 90 ballistic missiles and four of North Korea's six nuclear tests). The fate of those with nuclear ambitions like Gaddafi and Saddam is only too recent to be erased from one's memory, least of all a dictator whose only survival is in creating a retaliatory nuclear strike capability. He has attained that and he has let Trump know that if the US president has a finger on the nuclear button, so has he. Therefore, if Kim has preferred discretion to valour because of what the US calls constant US pressure, it could be said too that Trump's change in attitude towards Kim and willingness to meet him, unconditionally, has been caused by North Korea acquiring an apparent nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, the Korean reconciliation has created a new kind of dynamics for the US insofar as it concerns a major component of its Indo-Pacific policy, the North-East Asia, a concept that stems from a significant reorientation of its Asia-Pacific focus. It will bring the matter of nearly 20,000 troops in South Korea and its raison d'être to be there after a final agreement between the two is reached for permanent peace and denuclearisation and end of a state of war between the two Koreas. And by the same token, what would the US position be regarding North Korea's nuclear arsenal? Halting testing does not mean that Kim would allow its nuclear capabilities to be neutered without a full guarantee of no aggression from the US.

Furthermore, would a nuclear umbrella over North Korea be necessary at all under the changed circumstances? In any case, South Korea can be a target of North Korean nukes if Kim wants to destroy his country too, not from US retaliation but from the natural consequences of a fallout that his bombs would create. Nuclear clouds know no international boundaries neither do they recognise armistices. 

The forthcoming Trump-Kim summit should more than just offer diplomatic mileage to Kim. And for that the US has to offer substantive grounds for Kim to induce him to dispose off his weapons of mass destruction. But that depends on the degree of trust that can be created between two countries which were only recently trading in unpalatable rhetoric. And how much can Kim depend on any agreement with US, given Trump's propensity to renege on international and multilateral treaties? Iran nuclear deal stands to be rescinded; therefore, can one guarantee that such would not be the fate of future agreements between the current US administration and any other country?

We hope that the commitments made by the two leaders in the DMZ to shed the baggage of history would be followed through with actions that would prove the pessimists wrong. 

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

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