The Take

One Small Step for Man02/05/18

QUTEFS’ Publications Officer Heath Gabbett discusses Kim Jong-un’s monumental steps into South Korea in this edition of The Take:

Last week Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to step into South Korea when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two committed to pursuing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, prompting President Trump to remark on twitter “KOREAN WAR TO END”. But while the meeting was certainly monumental, is it too soon to claim an end to the diplomatic conflict surrounding North Korea? What has made a formal conclusion to the Korean War so elusive? And what has changed to cause such public support from Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump? The article will investigate briefly the history between the two countries since the war, outline the changes that have made this monumental meeting possible, and predict what may be in the future for South Korea, North Korea and the world.

While a ceasefire in Korea was reached with the 1953 truce between China, North Korea and America, on paper South and North Korea are still at war.  This has led to continued hostility in the region, including the torpedoing of a South Korean ship and the murder of two US Army officers in the demilitarised zone in 1976. With the goal of ending such hostilities in mind, proper peace treaties between the nations have occasionally been proposed. Ultimately however, discussions have fallen short due to the complexity of the proposed multilateral agreement. For one, the treaty would need to be ratified by the United Nations, as well as North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States. Although South and North Korea have now taken a step towards a full peace treaty, it may be significantly harder to convince America the same.

America has all sorts of issues with North Korea, not the least of which is their nuclear weapons. This relationship has certainly been aided by Kim Jong-un’s declaration that the nation will no longer be testing any nuclear or long-range missiles. While sceptics point to the recent collapse of North Korea’s nuclear site as a possible explanation, the declaration was still met well by America and Trump. Kim Jong-un and Trump are set to meet in three to four weeks, where it may be the first real chance in decades for peace treaty negotiations to see substantial progress. It’s important to remember however, that Trump is prepared to walk away from negotiations if talks do not work out.  The negotiations therefore may concern North Korea’s various breaches of human rights, evasions of UN sanctions, and of course its weapons of mass destruction. How America views Kim Jong-un’s progress against those issues remains to be seen.

If North Korea could reach a full-fledged deal, the impact on their economic liberalisation could be immense. Some have likened the situation to China’s emergence onto the global stage. There is certainly a long way to grow for North Korea, an economy with annual GDP of just $1700 per person. But Kim Jong-un has also taken steps to liberalise the economy, supporting capitalism far more than any previous North Korean dictator. Steps such as allowing state enterprises to freely operate are certainly a stark contrast to the policies of the past. Any treaty that opens up the potential for future international trade will certainly boost their economy. It’s clear that the implications of the Korean summit are as much economic as they are political.

While the world is validly excited by the meeting, this optimism may be a tad unrealistic. The declaration signed at the 2007 Korean summit contained similar language about creating a nuclear-free peninsula, and the decade following that summit has certainly seen anything but that. And while vague goals were agreed to, there was no mention of any details such as human rights issues, chemical weapons, or how the broad promises will be enforced. So while there were a lot of promises made at the recent summit, it may be some time before we have a formal peace treaty between the countries, and we can only dream of seeing a unified Korea in the future.

While Kim Jong-un’s steps were certainly monumental in their symbolism, the true effects of the summit may be much less impactful. Promises may turn out to be empty, and the agreement may never take the shape of a true peace treaty without American support. Still, the summit symbolises a connection that has inspired the world with optimism, and that of itself may be enough to have real impact.