Long ago, in my youthful ambition to be a singer-songwriter, I penned a catchy little ditty – well I thought so, anyway – using a well-worn metaphor. The chorus was simple enough:
My heart says yes, my head says no;
Which way is it going to go?
That’s pretty much how I feel about the fairly startling latest news from Pyongyang. One always wants to try and be optimistic about Korea’s prospects. Especially now, when the Olympic thaw if nothing else has been a blessed relief from the tensions that marred 2017.
Trouble is, this old heart has been broken too often before. Over and over and again – 1972, 1985, 1990-92, and the sunshine decade (1998-2007) – seeming inter-Korean breakthroughs have raised our hopes, only to end in tears. Will it be any different this time?
As on the North-South front, so with U.S.-DPRK relations and the nuclear issue. The 1994 Agreed Framework and KEDO: where are they now? Ditto the Six Party Talks. They came, amid hope; they dragged on; but eventually they fizzled out or collapsed. Unlike North Korea.
One always wants to try and be optimistic about Korea’s prospects… this old heart has been broken too often before
The stakes are higher than ever now. During the sunshine era, which Moon Jae-in was heavily involved in as chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun (ROK president 2003-08), the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were a worry, but far from the overriding concern they are today.
In that context engagement and outreach, even if initially one-sided, could be argued for as a potential strategy to reduce tensions on the peninsula and so nurture an atmosphere for peace.
That was then. Under Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have made such spectacular progress recently as to become not merely a local but a global threat.
Naturally, the international community has responded. Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 nine separate major United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, five of them since 2016, have mandated ever tighter economic sanctions.
In addition, the EU and individual countries, including South Korea, have imposed dozens of bilateral restrictions. The U.S. did its best to rain on the South’s Pyeongchang Olympic parade by announcing fresh sanctions just before the games began – and then another set as they ended.
All this creates a very different atmosphere and milieu than 10-20 years ago, not least legally.
For instance, in the new inter-Korean thaw the question may well arise of reopening the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). Park Geun-hye, Moon’s disgraced predecessor, summarily shut the KIC two years ago after back-to-back DPRK nuclear and missile tests.
Cue howls from the 123 Southern SMEs invested there, who demand its reopening. Trouble is, that’s now illegal. UNSCR 2375, passed unanimously on 11 September last year, bans all JVs (including pre-existing ones) with North Korea. The ban came into effect on January 10.
But anyway, we shouldn’t run ahead here. Rather – head not heart speaking – let’s remind ourselves of the many more immediate risks and pitfalls which lie ahead.
First and foremost: Everything we think we know about what the two Koreas have agreed, in fact so far comes from only one of them – the South. Sentences beginning “Seoul says” about North Korea have a habit of turning out to be untrue: be it jumping the gun, wishful thinking or fake news (as when the ROK National Intelligence Service claims X has been executed, and then they pop up again.) We urgently need to hear all of this confirmed by Pyongyang.
CHAIRMAN KIM GOES SOUTH
That said, the news is startling. The venue, for starters. One had assumed, pessimistically, that asymmetry rather than reciprocity was built in. Summits were supposed to alternate, but after two in Pyongyang – Kim Dae-jung in 2000, Roh in 2007 – the assumption was that Moon too would have to make the trek to Pyongyang, which would portray his visit as a pilgrimage.
Kim has written the DPRK’s nuclear status into the Constitution and the statutes of the Workers’ Party (WPK). How can he back out of that?
Not so. This time Kim Jong Un is coming South. Not to Seoul: that would be a step too far, given likely right-wing street protests. But to Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), specifically to the Southern side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Now that is bold.
So is putting denuclearization on the table. Kim has written the DPRK’s nuclear status into the Constitution and the statutes of the Workers’ Party (WPK). How can he back out of that?
Speaking of the Party, indeed the party: the banquet Kim threw for his guests was held in the main Party building. Such gestures matter. No South Korean had ever entered the HQ of the WPK, whose charter still declares that its goal is to communize the whole Korean peninsula.
And a hotline. Not just between flunkeys – sorry, aides – as in the 1980s, when Park Chul-un in Seoul and Han Si Hae in Pyongyang talked almost daily; but between the two top guys, Kim and Moon. That is wholly unprecedented. Let’s see if it actually happens.
Could this all go wrong? Of course. The summit might never happen.
Two main risks loom.
One is a backlash by Southern conservatives, some of whom mistrust Moon almost as much as they loathe Kim. During the Olympics the North protested angrily at hostile press coverage and demonstrations, which of course a democracy can’t prevent. That scenario may recur.
Secondly, keeping Washington onside with the new peace process could be tricky. An ill-chosen tweet from Trump could cause offense. Or on concrete policy issues, any U.S. insistence that the usual joint spring war games should go ahead could be a deal-breaker. Pyongyang will surely demand their cancellation, not just a further postponement.
any U.S. insistence that the usual joint spring war games should go ahead could be a deal-breaker…Pyongyang will surely demand their cancellation
More than that, at this stage, would be to speculate. The important thing is that a precious, fragile space has opened up. If nothing else, Moon’s and Kim’s people have started meeting: first in Seoul and Pyeongchang, and now in Pyongyang.
At the very least they can – forgive the metaphor – do like dogs do: sniffing out and sizing each other up. That is important. It also steals a march for South Korea vis-a-vis China.
Put more formally, diplomacy is a necessary condition for progress – but by no means a sufficient one. We’ve been let down before, and the mountains are high. But a start has been made. For now, just be glad of that – and let’s see where, if anywhere, this all leads.
Featured image: KCNA / Blue House
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