Today was most of all a victory for the Korean people who under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are now living in a country on the road to peace. While this journey has taken decades and while there is still more terrain to traverse, the pace at which things are progressing is nevertheless remarkable.
What is all the more meaningful though is that while the clear path to peace which Kim and Moon have embraced is a great leap forward for Korea, it is also a collective triumph for all of Asia. The division of Korea after 1945 was an artificial construct that paid more attention to the ambitions of the superpowers who fought Japan than to the Korean people whose homeland was occupied by Japan. A series of calculated steps to unduly influence the party political and ideological make-up of Korea by all the superpowers, but most notably by the United States, led first to division, then to war and after three years of unimaginable suffering, a return to division. Had all ideological, partisan and economic grievances of the Korean people been allowed to be fully and freely debated by the Koreans themselves, the unnatural division of a common people would likely have never occurred.
Korea was not the first time a colonial power has sought to artificially divide a peoples against themselves. The 1916 Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement and 1917’s Balfour Declaration by Britain continue to haunt an artificially divided Arab world, while a collapsing British empire helped sow the divisions which continue to haunt Indian Occupied Kashmir. Later, in 1954, the largely failed Geneva Conference paved the way for an artificial division of Vietnam which in turn led to a US war in the country that only ended in 1975. This is of course before one mentions the brutal French repression of Indochina as a whole, which continued to be haunted by post-colonial divisions until the 1980s (some would say until the 1990s).
While the Asia of the mid 20th century was rife with anti-colonial struggle, foreign invasion and civil wars which largely stemmed from colonial legacies, direct neo-colonial provocations or a combination of all of the above as was the case in the disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia and also Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s, today’s Asia is vastly different.
Taken collectively, today’s Asia is the world’s centre for both innovation and production. While European living standards fall, Middle East living standards (with the big exception of Turkey) stagnate and African living standards continued to be pulled in a variety of directions, Asia is a place where on the whole, people are now more prosperous, healthy, secure and optimistic than at any time in recent memory. Thus, it is fitting that in such an age, the leaders of an artificially divided Korea should embrace each other at a time when both Korean states have a lot to be optimistic about in spite of lingering uncertainties.
Today, it would be largely unthinkable for the states of ASEAN to fight among each other as they did during the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, Japan and China are making progress on economic reconciliation while the prospect for war remains entirely remote if not non-extant. In South Asia, Pakistan is escaping the shadow of US dominance and is asserting itself as a productive member of the multiploar world whose economic future will be positively shaped by One Belt–One Road via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. While India’s ruling BJP remains at odds with a pan-Asian attitude, the ongoing meetings between Indian Premier Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping gives at least a glimmer of hope that both India and China will be able to embrace positive elements of a relationship whose strains derive from the ‘divide and rule’ legacy of British colonial rule over South Asia. Russia’s healthy partnership with China is complimented by a Eurasian Russia’s ability to embrace new partners in places like The Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey in western Eurasia, while retaining good relations with Vietnam and also India.
Throughout Asia, it can safely be said that the present is better than the recent past and the long term future will be far better than the lingering 19th and 20th century legacies of colonial humiliation. As Asia embraces the future, it has also learned to gradually embrace itself. The symbolism of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in holding one another’s hands during a musical/multimedia performance at the end of their summit is emblematic of an entire continent that is learning to hold hands and walk together into a brighter future.
It must be said that if not for China’s overwhelmingly positive influence as an economic and military superpower, much of what the world has seen would not be possible. While there are still some Asian states that refuse to embrace the natural position of China as the leading force in the wider Asian space, it is difficult to image a divided Korea taking the steps towards peace and unity that Kim and Moon have taken without China acting as a champion and de-facto guarantor of peace.
The divisions between left and right, political parties and nationalist suspicion are all parts of the colonial legacy that Asia must continue working to reject. China’s example as a country that is willing to work constructively with all partners in spite of any partisan lines, is a testament to the fact that Asian politicians can, will and ought to even more so, consider themselves as members of a wider Asian family first with all other considerations coming second.
If the US remained more influential in Asia than China, one could be sure that the spirit of anti-colonial harmony across Asia, including in Korea would not be flourishing. It is because of China’s leadership which respects the characteristics of each individual Asian nation that peace is beginning to take shape. Of course, in the specific case of Korea, the fact that both Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un have intensified their relations with Beijing, is a testament to China’s quiet strength against western voices that howl with discontent whenever Asian leaders act in a sovereign manner. Ultimately, China’s superpower status is paving the way for Asia to reject the machinations of those far from the heart of the Asian experience and instead become masters of their own destinies.
There is of course much to be done in Asia as a whole and in Korea, but the fact that things are progressing so fast and in so many positive directions is a credit to Asia as a whole, more than to anything else.