It would be quite a buzzkill if one were to cast doubts on any clandestine intentions of Kim Jong-Un after the political drama that unfolded on the border between North and South Korea. After all, it would seem natural for one to be apprehensive and cynical, especially since this summit is in stark contrast to the belligerent waves of nuclear threats and hot-headed exchange of words between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim just a few months ago. And when seen in this context, a face-to-face meeting between the two Korean leaders comes as a breath of fresh air, something quite better than saber rattling.
The meeting between the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, and Mr. Kim was choreographed to perfection; intimate and symbolic to renew the hopes and longings of a divided people but with enough professionalism to keep the utopian optimists tethered to the ground realities. But then again, one can be forgiven for being a tad optimistic after witnessing the North Korean President stroll alongside his South Korean counterpart across the concrete slab that marks the border; a line which the Kim Dynasty had never breached before. The intimate embrace and hand-holding; soil heaped on a tree which was planted after the armistice of 1953 that ended the Korean war; and the guard of honour in the imperial robes of the 19th century have grabbed the center stage taking the attention away from what is going behind the curtains.
It would be wise to not get too ahead of ourselves just yet because the current scenes do seem nostalgic for ones with a good memory. After all, the images of the North and South Korean President holding hands harken us back to similar summits in the years 2000 and 2007 which unfortunately did not reap the desired results. Addressing the question, Mr. Kim nodded and said, ‘Rather than create results we won’t be able to carry out like in the past, we should make good results by talking frankly about current issues.’
The optimism of Mr. Kim was reflected in the Panmunjom Declaration signed by the two leaders which promised to purge the Korean peninsula of the nuclear weapons and finally start working towards a lasting peace. ‘The two leaders solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.’ the joint declaration stated. It vowed to pursue talks to declare a formal end to the war, turning the armistice into a peace treaty and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime. The euphoria was shared by Donald Trump too, as he rushed to his beloved twitter to show his approval and delight at the summit. Mr. Trump must be thanking his lucky stars at the timing of these positive developments because things seemed quite back only a few months ago when the POTUS himself threatened to raise ‘fire and fury’ in response to Mr. Kim’s ambitious moves.
After all, the images of the North and South Korean President holding hands harken us back to similar summits in the years 2000 and 2007 which unfortunately did not reap the desired results.
The path forward, however, is replete with many obstacles. Any sort of peace treaty in the future would require the involvement of not just the two Koreas, but also the United States and potentially China as well. Meanwhile, other states like Japan would keep a close eye on the developments as it feels that Washington is gradually turning a blind eye towards its interests. Concomitantly, even though the joint statement highlighted the desire of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, Mr. Kim did not explicitly mention this in his remarks. For Pyongyang, the aim is to eventually reduce the influence of Pentagon in the region and the first step would be to seduce South Korea out of the US nuclear umbrella.
An important question is that who perceives themselves as the driver of the agenda. Of course, Mr. Trump would suggest that it was his bellicose attitude which spurred these positive turn of events. But on the other hand, Mr. Kim must be swelling with confidence at his nuclear weapons program to which he might give the props for this historic engagement. Meanwhile, another interesting area would be the interaction between Washington and Pyongyang. Would these two be able to trust each other? After all, the US may take this summit as a convenient distraction to buy time for North Korea to continue on with its course. Indeed, the summit does leave a huge grey area when it comes to the issue of denuclearization in the peninsula. In the meantime, Pyongyang would have every reason to distrust the US if it is offered any sort of a security guarantee given its history of pursuing regime changes in States of choice with impunity. And surely one could hardly blame Mr. Kim for being on his toes on this one since the Oval office is occupied by a volatile President who is surrounded by war hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Repeated threats to pull out from the Iran nuclear deal have resonated from Washington, so why would any pact with North Korea be any different or permanent for that matter?
But would anyone notice the one in the background, bidding its time in the dark corner with its eyes fixated at these developments? Yes, it is so easy to forget Beijing in all this political theater. In the retrospect and the grand scheme of things, it is sooth to remember that China would stand to gain the most if the US was to withdraw itself from the region. If Beijing’s ambitions of ascendancy to the status of a hegemon and increased regionalism are put on a slight hold, it is only due to the influence of the USA in and around its territory: from Japan and South Korea in the Far-East all the way up to Afghanistan. And the rationale behind a US-free region would seem quite prudent, too. The Pentagon would prefer the security of its own interests and territory over its South Korean or Japanese allies in case of a tussle with Pyongyang. Keeping this mind, one would hardly blame South Korea and Japan if they were to develop nuclear capabilities of their own in order to secure themselves against any future tantrum of Mr. Kim involving nuclear weapons. Or they could ally themselves with Beijing, a close neighbour and a potential ally who seems far more reliable then the US under Mr. Trump at the moment. Because ultimately, it is literally impossible for one to change neighbours when it comes to world politics.
In the retrospect and the grand scheme of things, it is sooth to remember that China would stand to gain the most if the US was to withdraw itself from the region.
Whatever the case may be, the upcoming US-North Korea summit would be the litmus test: it could either serve as a grand finale or an appetizer before the main course. The recent positive turn of events have been quite welcome, but they also serve as a reminder that things change quickly in international politics. A few steps forward may potentially be followed instantly by a backward slide.