Author: Fuad HILALOV
Without further ado, we can say it was a historical step. A step, which the Korean nation divided in two parts due to unfavourable circumstances have been waiting for 65 years. At times, a gap between both parts of the nation seemed so deep that it would be impossible to overcome it. Nevertheless, the leaders of the two Koreas, North and South, met on April 27, 2018. Only time will tell if the next steps result in unification of the two countries.
On April 21, the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, said his country would stop testing nuclear weapons and launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. The plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea decided that North Korea would activate "close contacts and dialogue with neighbouring states and the international community." At that time, many regarded it as a political gesture before Kim Jong-un's alleged meeting with the U.S. President Donald Trump. But it also seemed like a forced measure after a group of geologists recently reported about the collapse of the mountain used by North Korea for nuclear tests. This raises concerns about radioactive precipitation that can move to the territory of neighbouring China.
Another factor that forces the North Korean leader to reconcile with his neighbour may be the deterioration of economic situation in the country due to severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies. It is well known that North Korea needs foreign investments, hence the normalisation of relations with the southern neighbour and the U.S. could ensure investment inflow into the country. The allies of North Korea also play an instrumental role in the ongoing dialogue. The main guardian of the Kim Jong-un regime is China, which is trying to avoid open confrontation with the U.S. over North Korea. Further aggravation of the situation may undoubtedly lead to this scenario. Yet Beijing has another rational and strategic motive. Many experts believe that the aggravation of situation on the Korean Peninsula is good for those forces in the American establishment who want to deploy the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea, which would further strengthen the American presence in the region under the pretext of North Korean nuclear development program. Beijing believes that the THAAD targets not so much Pyongyang than China and Russia.
As for South Korea, it has the most understandable reasons for reconciliation, for it becomes the first attacked country in case of full-scale war. In general, excessive militarization of the peninsula has negative implications over South Korea. It becomes not difficult to understand Seoul’s motives when one reconsiders Washington’s new foreign policy announced by the incumbent U.S. president Donald Trump: "We will protect our allies at their own expense and against their will". It is possible that South Korean President Moon Jae-in wanted to probe the ground and check the North Korean leader for "negotiability" before his meeting with Trump.
Either way, the historical meeting between South Korean President Moon and his North Korean counterpart Kim took place at the border point of Panmunjom. Before the meeting, President Moon crossed the demarcation line at the invitation of Kim Jong-un, hence making a short-term visit (several seconds) to North Korea. Kim Jong-un also crossed the border and became the first North Korean leader who has visited the territory of South Korea since 1953. The meeting was remembered by unexpectedly frank moments, as well as by broad promises of both leaders. For example, Kim admitted that he "came here to put an end to the history of confrontation." The tone and manner of communication between the two heads of state were cheerful and even jocular at times. Kim showed an amazing openness, given the difficult relationship between the neighbours.
According to the spokesman of the South Korean government, Yoon Yeung-chan, President Kim recognized the poor road conditions in his country during the meeting. Kim also said that his compatriots who visited the South during the Winter Olympic Games in February were admired by fast trains. President Moon said that he wanted to visit North Korea but Mr. Kim replied, "it will be very embarrassing" alluding to the quality of roads there. Continuing the conversation in an easy and playful tone, Mr. Kim apologised for interrupting the sleep of his South Korean neighbour with missile tests and forcing him to attend the meetings of the National Security Council. "I heard that your early morning sleep was interrupted many times because you had to visit the Security Council because of us. You should have become used to getting up early in the morning. I will control that your morning sleep is not interrupted," said Mr. Kim. President Moon also replied with a joke: "Now I can sleep peacefully."
As for the official part of the summit, the heads of states signed the Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, putting an end to the Korean War. Political leaders agreed on complete cessation of any hostile actions promising that there would never be a war on the peninsula. The joint declaration announces the beginning of "a new era of peace". Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in also agreed to stop all propaganda activities, particularly using megaphones, near the demilitarized zone starting from May 1.
According to the declaration, Pyongyang and Seoul are preparing to sign a peace treaty this year. The parties plan to turn the demilitarized zone into a full-fledged peaceful territory. In addition, the declaration assumes reunification of separated families. Seoul and Pyongyang also agreed to make mutual efforts to prevent accidental clashes. In addition, "the South and North agreed to take active steps to cooperate with the international community regarding the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula." Both parties also agreed to organise a trilateral conference with the U.S. or a four-sided conference with the participation of the U.S. and China within a year.
The last two points about the denuclearisation and organisation of a high-ranked summit with the participation of China and the U.S. is perhaps the most important outcome of the bilateral meeting, although such intentions have sounded before but each time proved unsuccessful. Analysts warn that after the start of negotiations with the U.S., North Korea may try to shift the emphasis from the total destruction of nuclear weapons to reduction only. To prevent this from happening, South Korea and the U.S. are trying to persuade North Korea to agree on specific terms for full denuclearization: as soon as possible and not later than the end of Trump's current presidential term, that is, before the beginning of 2021. It is clear that this step will greatly strengthen Trump's position both among the population and the U.S. leadership as a politician who managed to solve the North Korean nuclear problem once and for all. Most likely this is the reason of numerous encouraging tweets by the American president, where he enthusiastically spoke about the meeting of Korean leaders, and even showered compliments on Kim Jong-un and forgot about the mutual offences some time ago.
However, let’s not forget the other side of complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of the long-awaited peace. As soon as the crisis is resolved, China will have a reason to demand the withdrawal of the U.S. military contingent from the peninsula due to the absence of threats against South Korea. But considering that North Korea also has chemical weapons, Americans can find a wonderful excuse to stay over there. Kim Jong-un himself probably remembers what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hossein in Iraq after they stopped their programs on weapons of mass destruction. Also, the threats voiced by Washington about the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran can also cause concerns in Pyongyang about Washington's further steps if North Korea makes itself vulnerable.
If in the next few years everything goes as planned on April 27, it is most likely that Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump will become the main contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, it is still far away from complete settlement of the situation. Although the situation on the Korean Peninsula unexpectedly entered a new promising phase, we can see that Seoul’s and Pyongyang's sincere desires for a lasting peace may not be enough to achieve this peace in practice. Time will tell how the other major regional actors, especially the United States will behave.