By Gordon M. Choi
He gave him his hand as he crossed the border to the South. They shook hands as the world gazed upon them. Such sincere smiles they both have on their faces as they pose for one of the most significant shots of our century.
But this is not it.
“Welcome to the South. I would love to one day visit the North.” Said President Moon Jae-in.
“Why don’t you do it now?” replied President Kim Jong-un, as he invited Moon to cross to the North of the 38thParallel.
And then, for the first time in over half a century, the leaders of both Koreas crossed each other’s borders and ‘visited’ the once hostile “other half” of the Peninsula.
The leaders then proceeded to take a few more shots, got over with the protocol, had a meeting and signed an agreement to seal the deal. Finally, after over 67 years, the Korean war officially ended on 27thApril 2018.
But there is more. The two leaders did the unthinkable and reached an agreement on denuclearization. Should anyone have predicted that such a deal would be reached in 2018, the idea would have been brushed off as ridiculous. It was only a few months ago that President Trump warned the DPRK that military action was on the table if the latter continued carrying out missile tests.
Peace in the Korean Peninsula had been a dream but now it is reality. Since the Korean war, the politics of the Peninsula have been guided, to a large extent, by a realist ideology. To all the players in the region, it has always been an interest-driven game. During the Cold War era, when geo-political gains and losses were the main concern, China, the USSR and the DPRK relied on each other for security, economic interest and political safety. As for the capitalist bloc, stability through economic development in South Korea and Japan created bulwarks to prevent a domino effect from countries siding with the Communists.
But ever since the USSR dissolved in the 90s, China’s market gradually opened up, and paradigm shifts occurred in the global economy with the help of technological advancement, the attention on the Peninsula crisis shifted from geopolitics to the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons have proven to be one of the greatest bargaining chips a small, authoritarian state can own and the greatest threat the DPRK poses is not on American soil but to Seoul and Tokyo, the United States’ two allies’ populous capitals. The DPRK also relied on China’s fear of US troops coming to its doorstep should the buffer zone of the Peninsula disappear if the DPRK falls. The DPRK has always been tricky with its diplomatic policy, meddling with the fear and concerns of other bigger countries in the region.
A pledge to denuclearize the DPRK is nothing new. In the past, the DPRK has made deals with the US and other countries that it will remove certain nuclear facilities in return for economic aid, only to have the DPRK revive its project a few years later. What fascinates critics this time is the attitude Kim Jung Un is presenting to the world. The many gestures in recent months have painted a whole new image of the Supreme Leader that contrasts greatly with his predecessors and himself since his ascension. Some even speculate that following denuclearization, Kim might be able to make a deal with President Trump in their upcoming meeting which will see the US promising not to invade DPRK and mitigate its military presence in the region, a deal just like the one reached in the Cuban missile crisis.
All seems to have come too easily and conveniently, which has led many to wonder whether the situation is as joyful as this big act of political theater portrays. Is there any hidden agenda behind the grins of the two leaders? Some critics remain skeptical partly due to the DPRK’s track record on fulfilling the terms of agreements, and partly because they don’t believe Trump will take the deal, drawing parallels between the Korean issue with the Iranian nuclear deal, where Trump is considering leaving the table. But some counter these concerns by citing reports from within the DPRK that unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jung Un has purged those factions within the ruling party who insist on nuclear testing, and has replaced them with those who suggest focusing on economic development.
Nonetheless, the agreement does shed light to a chapter of hope on the Peninsula, easing the hostility that has lasted for generations, but it would be too soon to conclude what the impacts are of this historical meeting.