The Telegraph, 26 April, 2018
What took place this morning in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area an incredible moment in Korean history. Even after years watching the ratcheting tensions between North and South Korea, I found myself a little awed.
In one clip doing the rounds this morning, both Northern and Southern leaders meet on a large screen, with journalists in the press pool watching. The ascending roar of surprise and acclamation when they stepped across the border, hand in hand, was moving in itself.
We watched Kim Jong-un, the leader of a murderous regime, smilingly step over a simple concrete marker and into South Korean territory. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s progressive president, was in his element, with a welcoming and warm smile.
Then they even stepped back over into North Korea, to the amusement and pleasure of both. It was a testimony to the fact that all political walls are , in the end, only human.
Several months ago, denuclearisation was not even on the table. Today, however improbably, it is. Even if nothing comes of this meeting, it’s significant that we are even at this point.
But what are the actual prospects for a lasting peace? The opening point of the statement released by both leaders was a promise to re-open people-to-people links, and a number of steps were taken to institutionalise relations at certain flashpoints, such as the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea.
Most importantly, it agreed that a peace treaty between the two is on the cards, to be signed within a year, committing Moon to a visit to Pyongyang in the Autumn. Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer at Kings College London, said this was certainly the most consequential element of the agreement. It “would not only allow a formal end to the Korean War, but also allow for a new framework for inter-Korean relations”. The US and China would also have to be involved in this process, as two of the parties to the 1953 Armistice.
In terms of denuclearisation, both agree that this is a desirable goal and one that both sides want. But the term “disarmament” is also mentioned, perhaps indicating some hint of a reduction of ROK forces and US forces. Time will tell what this means, and we will have to see how this issue is framed during the Trump-Kim meeting, expected to take place in Singapore sometime in late June.
As some have argued, it was a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. Pardo stated that this cautious optimism was palpable in South Korea. “On the streets of Seoul, this is seen as a positive, hopeful and feasible agreement, but there is still caution about North Korea’s commitment to this process.”
As weary American diplomats have been known to say about North Korea in the past, “we’ve bought this horse before”. The Six Party Talks in the mid-Noughties came within a whisker of resolving the crisis, only to fail at North Korea’s refusal to have third party verification over their denuclearisation process.
Having said that, one need only think of where things stood this time four months ago to realize that progress is being made, and jaw-jaw is better than war-war.