by Nicholas Mele
Almost all coverage of the North-South Korean Summit on April 27, 2018, cautioned against expecting too much to come from the meeting of the two leaders or the joint statement released at the conclusion of their meeting. I understand the reasons for skepticism but I also hear the voice of a South Korean defense expert telling me almost 30 years ago that the only true statement about the North-South divide is that when it ends, it will be a total surprise. Those words resonated as I watched the video of Chairman Kim Jong-un inviting President Moon Jai-in to step across the line of stones marking the border of the two entities. Their little dance was a surprise to everyone, and their statement offers reason to hope for more.
The statement’s first set of points concern the improvement of North-South relations and connections. Much of this has been said before, but some good came of previous dialogues, including a number of carefully orchestrated family visits across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Other agreements are new though built on past progress, like the pledge to open a joint liaison office in “the Gaeseong region”, that is, the historically and culturally significant former capital of the Koryo dynasty which is a center of light industry and has been an area of South Korean investment in the North. The idea of dialogue between the two Koreas began to take shape in 1972 when South Korea’s Park Chung Hee secretly sent the head of the Korean intelligence apparatus to the North, the first in a series of meetings and summits leading up to this latest one. Previous agreements opened up the North to trade and investment from the South, allowed limited visits of families, and addressed other steps; each led to further dialogue. Inter-Korean relations have improved since 1972, and we should remember that progress came through talks like the latest summit.
The second point seeks to address ongoing military tensions along the demarcation line between North and South Korea. Propaganda broadcasts and leaflet scattering have stopped in the past, but the statement also promises frequent meetings between military authorities up to the two countries’ Defense Ministers. It again builds on past progress and could change the dynamic of the Military Armistice Commission meetings regularly held at Panmunjom by offering a second, Korea-to-Korea channel for dealing with disputes involving military personnel and actions.
The third area of agreement is to end the Korean War. The leaders of the two Koreas committed to work toward a peace treaty and to build trust through a series of confidence building measures, such as the proposed liaison office, the reopening of a rail line across the DMZ, and step-by-step disarmament. Commentators critiqued the idea of a separate peace, but neglected to mention that the joint statement addresses that issue directly: “…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 and the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”
Finally, the statement talks about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The history of efforts to negotiate with North Korea is not as hopeless or one-sided as it is usually portrayed—the North Korean government has halted its program in the past, for example. From the initial White House reaction to the statement and the summit, it seems there is an opening for progress on the nuclear issue. Moreover, if the U.S. agrees to a peace treaty and offers written assurance that it will not peremptorily attack North Korea, it would support the inter-Korean cooperation and confidence-building measures outlined in the joint statement. So, with eyes open, why not hope for continued progress toward peace?
Nick Mele has been following Korean affairs since 1972, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, diplomat, and peace activist. He speaks and reads Korean fluently.