While the United States continues to frame the Korean peace process in terms of demilitarisation, a far more important aspect of the process is the political, cultural and physical reconciliation of the two Korean states. It is helpful to remember that while an artificially divided Germany formally united in 1990, it was not until 1994 that (post) Soviet troops left the former East Germany. In this sense there is a clear parallel to the Korean peace process in which the will among a common people on both sides of a politically divided border are rapidly accelerating their connectivity in the midst of a prolonged but still rapidly advancing demilitarisation process.
On the 9th of November 1989 after East German authorities made an announcement that appeared to even surprise Günter Schabowski, the official tasked with announcing it, the divisions in Germany as a whole and in the city of Berlin began to disappear before the world’s eyes. On the 9th of November, all travel restrictions between a divided Berlin were to be lifted. Hours later, the Berlin Wall was torn down and what was once believed to be impossible became the inevitable – a divided Berlin and a divided Germany reunited. The history of modern Europe was consequently changed within a matter of hours.
With the 29th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise just days away, a divided Korean people have just experienced something at least partly akin to their November 1989 moment. Today, the DPRK (North Korea) and South Korea have announced an end to all hostilities on the border between the two states. According to a report from China’s Xinhua,
“South Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on Thursday stopped all hostile acts in border area as agreed upon in the military agreement, signed by defense chiefs of the two Koreas during the Pyongyang summit in September, according to Seoul’s defense ministry.
The ministry said in a press release that the military authorities of the two Koreas would stop all hostile acts against each other on land, in waters and the air as of 12 a.m. local time Thursday (1500 GMT Wednesday) in accordance with the comprehensive military agreement.
The military agreement was signed on Sept. 19 in Pyongyang on the sidelines of the third summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and top DRRK leader Kim Jong Un.
Under the agreement, the two sides would stop the live-fire artillery drills and the field maneuvering exercises by regiment or bigger units within the 5-km border areas from the military demarcation line (MDL) dividing the Korean Peninsula.
The operation of drones, helicopters and other aircraft would be banned over the border areas up to 40 km away from the MDL.
The live-fire coastline artillery drills and the maritime maneuvering exercises would be prohibited in maritime buffer zones in the eastern and western waters.
The Seoul ministry said the DPRK side officially expressed its willingness to implement the military agreement during the general-grade military talks on Oct. 26.
The DPRK military was implementing the agreement given the recent closure of coastline artilleries in the western waters, according to the Seoul ministry”.
It has further been announced by companies offering foreigners guided tours of the DPRK that for the first time in post-1945 history, ordinary tourists will be able to cross over from the DPRK into the Panmunjom peace village south of the border where DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un first met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in earlier this year. As travel agencies are responsible for the safety of tourists, it is clear that any fear of a re-militarised situation between North and South is of little worry. While the two Korean states are still separate states, an irreversible process has begun which has clear parallels to Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Today’s events naturally take some of the wind of out America’s sails as they attest to an attitude in South Korea that is far more eager to implement further connectivity measures with the DPRK than US officials appear to be. After South Korean officials moved to endorse a joint Chinese-Russian plan to formally request that the UN Security Council lift some sanctions on the DPRK, it became all too clear that when it comes to Korean unification, Asia is speaking with a singular voice and that voice is arguing for a more rapid rapprochement between Pyongyang and Seoul.
While yesterday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported that Kim Jong-un had told him that he is prepared to allow US weapons inspectors into former nuclear testing sites to verify their dismantling, this revelation is far less significant than that coming from Korea regarding the 38th parallel. The announcement that the two Korean states are formally renouncing hostilities in the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean peninsula means that a border region far more fortified than that the formerly divided Berlin is now going to be a place where tourism, diplomatic and cultural exchange can take place in a harmonious and exciting atmosphere.
While the US has yet to endorse or even offer a significant response to the Chinese-Russian and joint Korean call for a partial lifting of sanctions on the DPRK, events on the ground in Korea are rapidly outpacing developments in Washington that have thus far sought a slow and steady peace process dictated on American terms.
This too is not surprising. In the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush’s United States were far more eager to see Germany re-unite than was Britain under Margaret Thatcher. The reasons behind this had little to do with American altruism towards the German people but had more to do with Washington seeing a united German as being a political bulwark against a Soviet Union that most minds throughout the global west still throughout would not collapse as it ultimately did a year after Germany reunited. By contrast, Margret Thatcher whose early life was shaped by Britain’s participation in the Second World War, continued to be suspicious of a united Germany.
Ultimately though, Germany reunited largely of its own volition and by the time what remained of the last Soviet/Russian troops withdrew in 1994, the matter was more of a symbolic formality than anything else. In Korea, a United States that in the 1940s refused to allow for reunification out of fear that such a singular Korean state would be ruled by a Communist party, is now paradoxically worried that a more interconnected Korea might result in the loss of American influence in the peninsula just as a united Germany resulted in Russia losing influence in central and eastern Europe. Today, it is not Chinese or Russian troops who sit in Korean waiting for the “next war” but rather it is over 23,000 US troops who sit in South Korea prepared to fight a war that no one in Asia wants or is willing to fight.
In this sense, the position of the US in today’s Korean is akin to a hybrid of the Soviet and British position of 1990. While the Soviets clearly did not want to lsoe influence in Europe, there was little that could be done to slow the momentum of political change in mainland Europe. Likewise, the objections of the openly Germanophobic British Premier proved not to carry much weight in spite of her close relations with America. Furthermore, while elements of the so-called US deep state including the hawkish US National Security Adviser John Bolton appear to want to prolong the peace process, the business minded Donald Trump clearly wants the US private sector to have a piece of the tantalising Korean economic pie that will be served as soon as the spirit of economic openness that the DPRK is already preparing for becomes a matter of fact rather than a matter of policy.
On the whole however, the US is being more stubborn regarding Korea than the Soviet Union was in respect of Germany and other central and eastern European states with a post-1945 Soviet military presence. Be that as it may, just as the wider world tended to support German reunification in the 1990s, today even more of the world supports Korean steps to adopt something akin to a ‘One Country–Two Systems’ model that has defined post-colonial Hong Kong and Macao’s relations with the rest of China.
But just as the events in 1989 in Europe moved faster than either the Communist factions of the region or Britain’s anti-Communist Prime Minister wanted, so too does it appear that the movement towards peace and reconciliation in Korea is moving faster than anyone including the United States can control.
While there is little doubt that the Korean peninsula will be demilitarised as the US and others want, what’s even more important is that economic, human and cultural re-connectivity will likely happen long before the last nuclear weapon is disposed of. While sceptics will naturally disagree with this assessment, one must never forget that the majority of voices in the late 1989s and early 1990s were sceptical about the rapidly changing realities in Europe. They were proved wrong then and similar voices will likely be proved wrong in respect of Korea in the very near future.