History is being made before our eyes on the Korean Peninsula. Sixty five years after the Korean War ended with an armistice, the leaders of North and South Korea met in the Delimilitarised Zone that separates their countries and issued the Panmunjom Declaration that committed both to pursue a permanent peace treaty and the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The historic summit was laden with significant symbolism. First came the emotional handshake over the Military Demarcation Line between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, followed by Kim stepping over the Line, the first North Korean leader to do so since the Korean War ceasefire in 1953. At Kim’s impromptu invitation, the two leaders crossed hand-in-hand into the North before beginning only the third summit between leaders from the North and South. Kim Jong Un said the village of Panmunjom was the symbol of the heart-wrenching division but if it became a symbol of peace, the North and South that have one blood, one language, one history and one culture, will return to becoming one. His statement spoke to divided families that have had little or no contact with their loved ones since the war ended. The two leaders also agreed that Moon would visit Pyongyang this fall and they would hold regular meetings and remain in direct telephonic contact. Of course, given the history of fraught relations between the North and the South and the latter’s ally and guarantor the US, much work lies ahead. Kim is due to meet US President Donald Trump in the coming weeks, probably in Singapore. There is much riding on that summit, given that until recently, Kim and Trump had traded personal insults and threats of war as North Korea carried out a series of missile launches and its sixth nuclear explosion, earning fresh UN Security Council sanctions. Moon intervened in this escalating tension by seizing on the opportunity provided by the Winter Olympics in the South, at which the ice melted when North and South Korean athletes marched and competed together. In a sense then, it was the Korean desire for peace and reconciliation that carried the day. Interestingly, Trump hailed the breakthrough, echoed by a welcome from the two Koreas’ neighbours and the UN. China, the North’s major ally, received a pat on the back from Trump and vowed to continue to play a proactive role in peace building.
Harking back to previous attempts at peace and the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, particularly the agreement under US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, no one has any illusions that the way forward will be easy or without difficulties. The Clinton-era agreement broke down amidst accusations by Pyongyang that Washington had reneged on its commitment to ease sanctions against the North in return for incrementally shutting down the North Korean nuclear programme. That breakdown hardened suspicions in the North about Washington’s intentions and reliability. Given that subsequently the North felt the threat from the US military presence in the South and the nuclear umbrella it provides to Seoul and Japan was growing, the North accelerated its nuclear weapons and missile programmes, announcing recently that it had acquired the capability to hit the US mainland. While Trump had been threatening virtual if not actual annihilation of North Korea, and ascribed the breakthrough to such ‘pressure’, this may not entirely be the case. The calculus of the two Koreas may be the real factor that has made this opening possible. There is a divergence between the approach of Washington and that of Moon to handle denuclearisation. Washington would like an irreversible, internationally verifiable, six-month process. Seoul more realistically suggests rewarding Pyongyang with incremental easing of the sanctions that have isolated North Korea and caused hardship amongst its people in exchange for agreed steps to denuclearise over a period of three years. The latter strategy appears more realistic and doable as compared to the one-sided approach of Washington, driven by hawkish domestic opinion. The world’s eyes will remain trained on how the Korean last remaining vestige of the Cold War plays out.