While the leaders of multiple nations have praised the efforts of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in to open a new chapter for peace and reconciliation between the divided Korean states, certain voices in US mainstream media remain cynical in the face of a moment of joy for the Korean people, Asia as a whole and the wider world.
When expressed in its most exhaustive fashion, the cynics point to the previous time that the two Korean states attempted to engage in a peace process during what is known as the Sunshine Policy which became the official stance of Seoul via-a-vis Pyongyang between 1998 and 2008, with several notable interruptions. Some writers such as the notorious Max Boot of the Washington Post have claimed that the current rapprochement between the two Korean states will fail because in his view, the Sunshine Policy failed. However, Boot mis-characterises both the current events in Korea and the Sunshine Policy, while failing to understand key difference between that period and recent events.
Strength versus weakness
In the 1990s, the North Korean economy was at its lowest ebb in history. While there is no ‘famine or starvation’ in contemporary North Korea and nor was there during the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, the 1990s were lean years for the DPRK in every sense. The economic downturn of the mid-1990s hit North Korea particularly hard and it was this reality that led leaders in Seoul to extend a hand to Pyongyang based on a combination of genuine compassion towards fellow Koreans and based on the fact that some in Seoul honestly believed that the DPRK was on the verge of collapse in the 1990s and therefore it was judged that it was more prudent to manage this collapse in an ordered and fraternal fashion, rather than a hostile and suspicious one.
Today, North Korea’s economy is incredibly strong in terms of aggregate growth rates, infrastructural development, consumer technology development, the building of modern housing and the building of public leisure, arts and entertainment centres. Without much international fanfare, Kim Jong-un has modernised the economy in ways that are far less radical than what Deng Xiaoping did in China, but are nevertheless indicative of a shift towards some of the characteristics of market socialism.
Secondly, with North Korea now in possession of modern hydrogen bombs and the intercontinental ballistic missiles with which to deliver them to the US mainland, Pyongyang now feels that it has more of an equal footing with its main international antagonist than ever before, let alone in the economically depressed 1990s.
So while the Sunshine Policy was instigated by the South at a time of Northern weakness in every sense, today’s rapprochement was launched by Kim Jong-un during his 2018 New Year’s Message. Kim acted from a position of strength and confidence and what is more, he did what he promised he would do throughout 2017’s weapons tests. The DPRK had always said that when it reached nuclear parity with the United States (which the DPRK defines as the ability to strike the US mainland with modern nuclear weapons), it would then and only then, be willing to engage in international discussions about peace. Furthermore, throughout the weapons tests, Pyongyang reiterated that the US and not South Korea remained the only foe that the country was arming itself against.
Differences in declarations
Contrary to what the Washington Post’s Max Boot says, yesterday’s Panmunjom Declaration is a far lengthier document than the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of the year 2000. To illustrate this point, the following is the full text of the agreement signed yesterday between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in:
“During this momentous period of historical transformation on the Korean Peninsula, reflecting the enduring aspiration of the Korean people for peace, prosperity and unification, President Moon Jae In of the Republic of Korea and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea held an Inter-Korean Summit Meeting at the ‘Peace House’ at Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
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.
The two leaders, sharing the firm commitment to bring a swift a swift end to the Cold War relic of long-standing division and confrontation, to boldly approach a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity, and to improve and cultivate inter-Korean relations in a more active manner, declared at this historic site of Panmunjom as follows:
1. South and North Korea will reconnect the blood relations of the people and bring forward the future of co-prosperity and unification led by Koreans by facilitating comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations.
Improving and cultivating inter-Korean relations is the prevalent desire of the whole nation and the urgent calling of the times that cannot be held back any further.
2) South and North Korea agreed to hold dialogue and negotiations in various fields including at high level, and to take active measures for the implementation of the agreements reached at the summit.
3) South and North Korea agreed to establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides in the Gaeseong region in order to facilitate close consultation between the authorities as well as smooth exchanges and cooperation between the peoples.
4) South and North Korea agreed to encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels in order to rejuvenate the sense of national reconciliation and unity.
Between South and North, the two sides will encourage the atmosphere of amity and cooperation by actively staging various joint events on the dates that hold special meaning for both South and North Korea, such as June 15, in which participants from all levels, including central and local governments, parliaments, political parties, and civil organisations, will be involved.
On the international front, the two sides agreed to demonstrate their collective wisdom, talents, and solidarity by jointly participating in international sports events such as the 2018 Asian Games.
5) South and North Korea agreed to endeavour to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation, and to convene the Inter-Korean Red Cross Meeting to discuss and solve various issues, including the reunion of separated families.
In this vein, South and North Korea agreed to proceed with reunion programmes for the separated families on the occasion of the National Liberation Day of Aug 15 this year.
6) South and North Korea agreed to actively implement the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.
As a first step, the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilisation.
2. South and North Korea will make joint efforts to alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula.
1) South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict.
In this vein, the two sides agreed to transform the demilitarised zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 2 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.
2) South and North Korea agreed to devise a practical scheme to turn the areas around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea into a maritime peace zone in order to prevent accidental military clashes and guarantee safe fishing activities.
3) South and North Korea agreed to take various military measures to ensure active mutual cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts. The two sides agreed to hold frequent meetings between military authorities, including the defence ministers meeting, in order to immediately discuss and solve military issues that arise between them.
In this regard, the two sides agreed to first convene military talks at the rank of general in May.
3. South and North Korea will actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further.
1) South and North Korea reaffirmed the Non-Aggression Agreement that precludes the use of force in any form against each other, and agreed to strictly adhere to this agreement.
2) South and North Korea agreed to carry out disarmament in a phased manner, as military tension is alleviated and substantial progress is made in military confidence-building.
3) During this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice, South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China, with a view to declaring an end to the war and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.
4) South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.
South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
The two leaders agreed, through regular meetings and direct telephone conversations, to hold frequent and candid discussions on issues vital to the nation, to strengthen mutual trust and to jointly endeavour to strengthen the positive momentum towards continuous advancement of inter-Korean relations as well as peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula.
In this context, President Moon Jae In agreed to visit Pyongyang this fall.
April 27, 2018
Done in Panmunjom
Moon Jae In
Republic of Korea
Kim Jong Un
State Affairs Commission
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
By contrast, the much shorter declaration from 2000 reads as follows:
“In accordance with the noble will of the entire people who yearn for the peaceful reunification of the nation, President Kim Dae-jung of the Republic of Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea held a historic meeting and summit talks in Pyongyang from June 13 to 15, 2000.
The leaders of the South and the North, recognizing that the meeting and the summit talks were of great significance in promoting mutual understanding, developing South–North relations and realizing peaceful reunification, declared as follows:
- The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.
- For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.
- The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.
- The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.
- The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.
President Kim Dae-jung cordially invited National Defence Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il to visit Seoul, and Chairman Kim Jong-il will visit Seoul at an appropriate time.
(signed) Kim Dae-jung, President, The Republic of Korea
(signed) Kim Jong-il, Chairman, Supreme Leader, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
June 15, 2000″
Therefore when someone like Max Boot says that the 2000 agreement was more substantive than the one signed yesterday, he is stating a self-evident untruth.
A totally different international context
In the year 2000, the US was more powerful than it is today, China was far weaker than it is today and Russia was for the first time since the early 16th century, largely geopolitically irrelevant. Today, China is in many sectors, more powerful than the US and is shortly set to become the world’s number one overall economy. Russia has long reclaimed its place as a global superpower and a very diplomatically important one at that, while the US remains powerful but is nevertheless in a period of geopolitical decline.
Against this backdrop, China has taken a far more proactive role in asserting its desire to secure peace in Korea while Russia has also worked closely with both Korean states in order to help foster an attitude of peace through strength that was unthinkable in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the DPRK was far weaker in every sense than it is today.
While the US under Donald Trump is in a self-described position of needing to re-acquire “greatness”, American foreign policy is also vastly less predictable than it was under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Trump’s pattern in almost all foreign policy matters is that of issuing extravagant and often worrying threats, claiming that some sort of negotiation is still possible, going back to even more outlandish threats and then waiting to see the response of other nations.
The DPRK has in many ways out-classed Trump in this respect as throughout the process of Trump threatening the DPRK, Pyongyang armed itself to the teeth, successfully tested nuclear capable ICBMs and made it clear that if Trump made good on his threat to “destroy” the DPRK, it would result in mutually assured destruction for parts of the US. This doctrine of mutually assured destruction is one of the primary reasons that nuclear war was averted during the Cold War and North Korea has resurrected it in the name of peace through strength.
From this position of strength, the DPRK is now in a position to issue its own demands, namely trading de-nuclearisation for the withdrawal of US troops and weapons from South Korea. Furthermore, as the DPRK has rejuvenated its relationship with China and has intensified its always good relationship with Moscow, should Trump play hardball regarding US withdrawal from South Korea, the DPRK could also invite Russia and/or China to have a military presence in the North.
The fact that both Trump and US Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis have suggested that US withdrawal from the South is a possibility, means that if good will exists on both sides, a more pacific Korea could be entirely possible over the course of negotiations. This does not mean the US will cease its neo-imperial ambitions in Asia, but it does mean that the US may well be eager to pivot its attention and resources to different parts of Asia and in particular, in ways that are less costly than maintaining its large presence in South Korea.
A different South Korea
While North Korea has changed drastically since 1998, the South has changed too. With the US putting up more and more tariff walls against both rivals like China and long time partners like South Korea, Seoul has raised unfair US trade practices with the World Trade Organisation, while Seoul-Beijing relations are at their best ever. By contrast, in 1998, China and South Korea had only engaged in formal relations for six years.
Today, trade between China and South Korea continues to expand while both Presidents Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in seek to promote more economic connectivity.
Furthermore, the impeachment of anti-DPRK war-monger Park Geun-hye has led to a kind of collective revitalisation of the peace movement within South Korea. Jailed former President Park Geun-hye was removed from office after months of the largest protests that South Korea has ever seen. The collective attitude in the South was one of opposition to the corruption, paranoia, militancy and blind following of Washington that Park Guen-hye, like her brutal dictator father Park Chung-hee came to represent.
Moon is the anti-Park in the sense that he is moderate, sincerely concerned with peace and while still close to the US as all South Korean leaders necessarily are, has shown an incredibly high degree of independence in terms of attitude and policy making that remains vastly overlooked in both the west and Asia.
The contrast between Park and Moon is literally like night and day. This has had a profound effect on both the North and South Korean political psyche that bears close examination.
Not only have the series of meetings between North and South progressed in a matter of months in 2018 rather than in a matter of years as was the case in the Sunshine Policy era, but already, more lengthy and concrete agreements have been made than those made at the peak of the Sunshine Policy.
As China, Russia, both Korean states and Asia as a whole become more independent of western influence, one must also realise that the events in Korea cannot be seen in isolation but must be viewed as part of a wider Asian space that is a growing economic powerhouse, a geopolitically independent space more so than at any time in the 20th century and a place where increasingly, national governments rather than far away superpowers dictate the trajectory of events.
Finally, as Kim Jong-un is a young leader who has embarked on meaningful internal economic reforms and as Moon Jae-in was a man whose spirit of peace and cooperation replaced his bellicose and old fashioned predecessor, one cannot underestimate the good will that has transpired between two leaders who have both survived one of the most tense periods in modern Korean history since the 1950s and have collectively chosen a path of peace and enlightenment over fear and hostility.