It is one of the most remarkable diplomatic moments of the year so far. Perhaps even of the decade. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the leaders of North and South Korea, standing face to face for the first time, shaking hands in the Korean demilitarised zone. Their joint pledge for peace on April 27th included a call for “complete denuclearisation” and “lasting peace” on the Korean Peninsula, a move which seeks to set aside decades of hostility. The meeting may even signal the beginning of a formal end to the Korean War, which technically still continues to this day. Whilst the summit was heavy on optimism, questions remain surrounding the specifics of Korean reunification. What are both sides willing to sacrifice in the negotiations? Was the meeting more style than substance? What role does the erratic Trump administration have to play in the negotiations? How long will Kim Jong-un maintain his open stance to towards the South?
Whilst Kim and Moon outlined their shared goals for prosperity and peace during the carefully choreographed meeting, they did not outline concrete steps from which to work towards reunification. The two leaders signed what is known as the “Panmunjom Declaration”, a three page document which outlines the shared goal of ending the Korean War, increasing cooperation between the North and South, and pursuing denuclearisation. The visit also marks the first time a North Korean leader has entered South Korea since the Korean War in the 1950s, signalling a sharp contrast against the belligerent rhetoric which has surrounded the Korean peninsula in recent years.
While the relationship between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has previously dominated international headlines, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also been working towards peaceful negotiations. Since his election in May 2017, the left-leaning Moon has sought to soften his stance towards the North, using the PyeongChang Winter Olympics as a means from which to work towards finding a diplomatic solution between the North and South. In a show of symbolic unity, athletes from both sides of the 38th parallel walked under the same flag during the opening ceremony, whilst hockey players united in the same team during the games. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong was also invited to attend the opening ceremony, making her the first member of Kim’s immediate family to cross the border.
There are indications that the talks may lead to substantial change. The North recently adjusted their time zone to match with the South so that the two rivals could move towards “becoming one”, as well as announcing that it will immediately suspend nuclear missile tests, and close its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Pyongyang also recently made a rare announcement to its citizens declaring that all Koreans should “promote contact, travel, cooperation between North and South Korea” and noted that Pyongyang will “smash” all obstacles that stand in the way of reunification.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also appears to be actively attempting to strengthen his diplomatic network, making a surprise visit to the Chinese port city of Dalian for talks with president Xi in May, the second visit by Kim to China within a period of two months. Writing for the New York Times, Jane Perlez noted that it appeared Chinese officials are enthusiastic to portray themselves as a significant player in resolving nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea.
Whilst the relationship between Pyongyang and Seoul appears to be progressing in a positive direction, Pyongyang-Washington relations remain turbulent, indicating that there are still a number of diplomatic and logistical roadblocks to overcome before reunification can be achieved. Kim and Trump had initially planned to meet in Singapore on June 12th, but the meeting was abruptly cancelled by the Trump administration in late May.
Prior to the cancellation, the relationship between Kim and Trump appeared positive after three Americans were freed from North Korean labour camps and returned to the United States. Trump spoke highly of Kim after the release of the prisoners, stating that that it was “nice” of the North Korean leader to release the men before the summit. “We are starting off on a new footing” Trump declared, adding that “I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful”. Trump noted that Kim has been “very open” and “very honourable” in the recent negotiations between North Korean and the United States.
The relationship between the two leaders has not always been so cordial. In 2017 Kim referred to Trump as a “frightened dog” and a “gangster fond of playing with fire”, going as far to call the American President “mentally deranged”. Unsurprisingly, Trump has not been shy to ridicule Kim, referring to him as “Rocket Man” in September 2017, and threatening that aggression against the United States would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
This is not the first instance in which North Korea has declared an interest to end its nuclear ambitions. In the 1990’s an agreement between South Korea, Japan, and the US attempted to give the North the ability to obtain nuclear power without weapons. In that instance, the reactor was never finished. In 2007 North Korea pledged to end its nuclear programme in exchange for fuel and the loosening of sanctions, but later rescinded on the agreement and expelled inspectors in 2009.
Prior to the recent round of talks, North Korea had escalated its nuclear programme, testing a warhead in September 2017 which reportedly detonated underground with ten times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. In November 2017, Kim also claimed to have tested a new nuclear tipped, inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching the west coast of the United States.
North Korea’s nuclear testing has also been of particular concern for Japanese citizens, after a nuclear warhead was launched over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in 2017. The detonation of a nuclear warhead in any one of Japan’s highly populated urban areas would be devastating, potentially causing the single largest loss of life in human history. The greater Tokyo metropolitan region has an estimated 38 million inhabitants, whilst the Keihanshin metropolitan region which included the cities of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto has an estimated population of 20 million. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is also one of the most populated urban areas on the planet, with approximately 25 million inhabitants.
The world eagerly awaits developments on the Korean Peninsula. If the recent negotiations between Moon and Kim offer any indication of things to come, then reunification and denuclearisation may be a real possibility. Germany was once separated by the Berlin wall, and now stands as the economic powerhouse of the European Union. After decades of hostility, the promise of “a new era of peace” is one that has great appeal, even to those living outside the Korean Peninsula.