by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Blue House/Public Domain
WITH NORTH KOREA and South Korea moving towards diplomatic rapprochement after some seventy years of being officially at war, this has been hailed as a historic turnaround. North Korea and South Korea have vowed an end to the Korean War and North Korea has agreed to nuclear disarmament. As marking the start of such efforts towards peace, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would cross the North-South Korean border to meet with South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in.
Few would have expected such a sudden events to take place one year ago or even several months ago. It remains to be seen as to what concrete steps toward this peace process will consist of.
On the other hand, it should not also be surprising that much naive commentary has also followed after the meeting. North Korea, previously spoken of as an international bogeyman, is suddenly seen in the rosiest of terms, ignoring the fact that the Kim regime remains an authoritarian one. Simply for pushing for “peace” is what has led to such rosy views of Kim and the North Korean government.
Likewise, it has proven bizarre to see commentary claiming that Donald Trump of all people should be given credit for achieving peace talks between North Korea and South Korea. If Trump was probably indirectly the impetus for unexpected moves by North Korea towards rapprochement, this was only in a negative sense, because Trump was viewed as a dangerous destabilizing force in international politics. Trump has been irrationally hawkish on the issue of North Korea in threatening nuclear war with Kim several times, including threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and threatening to “totally destroy” the country—which led North Korea decided it was safer to rebuild relations with South Korea. The recent political breakthrough, then, hardly seems to be the product of any grand “master plan” or mastery of the “art of the deal” by Trump, although there will inevitably be those who see irrational madness as a sign of genius.
Yet one sees similarly naive commentary from those who would seemingly prefer the alternative of war on the Korean Peninsula, at the cost of North Korean and South Korean lives, simply because of their dislike of Trump. When such commentary comes from Americans, this may not be too surprising, seeing as it is not uncommon for Americans to put scoring points in terms of domestic American politics over what prevents global bloodshed. Again, such would be nothing new for American empire.
It is correct in examining the rapid diplomatic turnaround for individuals in Taiwan to be wary of a wave of naive commentary suggesting that if North Korea and South Korea can make up, China and Taiwan could be next, in line with the mending other Cold War rivalries. For members of the international community and press, “peace” can be thought of as unequivocal good. And it is assumed by many that “peace” between North Korea and South Korea would lead next to “reunification,” even if it is highly unlikely that the Kim family intends to give up power. Yet it would be highly misleading to compare the relation between North and South Korea to Taiwan and China given China’s territorial ambitions on Taiwan. Moreover, what Taiwan precisely stands to lose from “unification” with China is its democratic freedoms. However, past incidents regarding historic meetings between Taiwanese and Chinese leaders were reported on similarly in international media, as occurred with the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting.
But more broadly, one should not be too excited about peace between North and South Korea just yet. Namely, it is important to keep in mind South Korea moving rapprochement was very likely with North Korea was likely on the initiative of the Moon administration, in spite of skepticism from America, South Korea’s main political and military backer—with National Security Advisor John Bolton proving a strong voice seemingly in favor of military intervention s the only solution—and Japan, the other major regional power in the Asia Pacific, with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe attempting to dampen ties between North Korea and South Korea.
It is possible that both will still prove hawkish towards North Korea and may not accept peace efforts by South Korea, claiming that the Moon administration has been naive or has been somehow deceived by the Kim regime. And so the Moon administration probably will have, in some way, to outmaneuver both the US and Japan in order to push towards peace efforts with North Korea—something which proves difficult given the instability of the Trump administration.
Indeed, South Korea coordinating the Pyeongchang Olympics led the way to a renewal of relations between North and South Korea when both Koreas participated as the same team, and it was in itself something accomplished only by outmaneuvering America in some sense. America was entirely negative on any attempts by South Korea to demonstrate good faith in negotiating to North Korea, as observed in the reactions of vice president Mike Pence during the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
America maintains a great deal of power over South Korea, historically an American client state; even now, in wartime, control of the South Korean military reverts to American control and America maintains a number of military bases in South Korea. Before his shift to the hawkish policy which seems to have backed North Korea into rapprochement with South Korea, last year, Donald Trump threatened to disrupt the status quo of the two Koreas with suggestions that America would withdraw its troops from South Korea, claiming that South Korea was freeloading off of American munificence. The crisis of confidence on the part of South Korea in traditional American support no doubt contributed to South Korea increasingly going its own way with regards to the issue of North Korea.
Lastly, it must be kept in mind that may be too early to see whether any agreement between North and South Korea will be followed up on. It is an important provision that North Korea has agreed to nuclear disarmament in the absence of threats from the US, even if North Korea compromised on the fact that in the past, it refused to negotiate any end to the Korean War unless American bases from South Korea were withdrawn. If North Korea perceives continued threats from America, it may not follow through with this withdrawal.
To this extent, before meeting with Moon Jae-in, it is significant to note Kim Jong-un sought to rebuild diplomatic ties with China in making a surprise visit to Beijing. China has historically propped up North Korea, much as South Korea has historically been propped up by America, and it seems unlikely that China would enjoy having an American-allied unified Korea as an immediate neighbor.
Without engaging in fear-mongering of the sort of Bolton and other hawks of his ilk, as a result, it does prove important to keep mind, that, as seen in the meeting, Kim Jong-un likely would not have made his move towards rapprochement with South Korea without Chinese approval, raising the possibility that China does indeed see rapprochement as necessary at this juncture or something which will secure something advantageous for China in the long-term. Seeing as nuclear arms are North Korea’s only major card to play on the international stage of world politics and North Korea is not an irrational political actor because it knows its survival is on the line, we might note North Korea would not give up its nuclear arms without securing something in return. For example, it could be that North Korea has not in fact given up on its aim of American withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula and hopes that rapprochement with South Korea will persuade America to withdraw, drawing on past rhetoric by Trump suggesting that such a withdrawal could be in the cards—something China would also like to see happen in order to remove the threat of American military bases on the Korean Peninsula.
Indeed, Trump revived rhetoric suggesting an American withdrawal last month, threatening American withdrawal unless South Korea bettered trade terms with America. This also points to the fact that the planned meeting between Trump and Kim slated to take place sometime in the near future also could prove disruptive to relations between South Korea and North Korea. Kim may be angling to negotiate American base withdrawal out of Trump, then, seeing as Trump has apparently put this on the table himself. It is possible that the Moon administration might also hope for an American withdrawal, having pushed for Korea to regain wartime control over its military in the past. Members of South Korea’s center-left in many cases do see American bases on its soil as as an infringement on Korean sovereignty, even if Moon has sought to keep American bases in South Korea in response to threats by Trump in the past.
Yet, as a result, thinking in the long-term in terms of political transitions in South Korea, one observes policies of rapprochement were also advanced under past South Korean presidents, but withdrawn following turnovers in political power. This was how the Sunshine Policy advancing better ties with North Korea, as pushed for under presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, eventually came to an end when more conservative political forces came to power.
As such, it may be too early to assume that any permanent solution has been reached regarding North Korea and South Korea, even if an end to the Korean War is undoubtably a major shift. Notably, America could have a major role in pushing for a conservative resurgence in Korea if it decides that Moon and the Democratic Party of Korea has become too friendly with North Korea because of American anxieties about China as backing North Korea, hence why Moon may actually face his greatest challenges from America. If Trump did hypothetically agree to American withdrawal, a more stable successor could attempt to reverse course in this way. Of course, this would undoubtedly be a means of America attempting unduly influence South Korean politics, much as it has done throughout South Korean history.
What will it take to create lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, then? To be frank, as long as the Korean Peninsula is caught between two empires, America and China, and is caught between their opposing geopolitical aims, this is not likely to happen. We shall see as to future developments, then.