World attention was focused during the last days of the month of April on the changing political dynamics in the Korean Peninsula. There has been symbolism, show of pomp, exhibition of rituals and tradition. Both South and North Korea, inspired through their common participation during the Winter Olympics, have tried to reach the plateau of least common denominators. It has been a fascinating exercise.
The dramatic meeting of April 27 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Chairman Kim Jong-un, was a historic breakthrough at least in terms of bilateral reconciliation. It also provided an emotional uplift for the common people in both parts of the Korean Peninsula.
Dr John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House, has made some interesting observations. Quite correctly he has underlined that one should not underestimate the symbolic aspect of a North Korean leader setting foot for the first time on South Korean soil. This, one could say, reflected the young North Korean dictator's confidence in himself, his acute sense of political theatre and expertise in executed timing. This was exemplified in his clever, seemingly spontaneous gesture of having President Moon reciprocate his stepping into the South by having Moon join him for a minute in stepping back into North Korean territory. It was an inspired way of asserting the equality of the two countries and their leaders in front of the media. This measure also connoted not only the blurring of the boundary between the two countries but also hinted at the potential goal of unification that many both in Seoul and Pyongyang have long sought to achieve.
After that came the choreographed scenes of the two leaders chatting informally and intimately in the open air - thereby cleverly advancing the powerful new narrative of the two Koreas being agents of their own destiny. Subsequently, handshakes, broad smiles and bear hugs underlined this message of Koreans determining their own future against a background where the Peninsula is only viewed in terms of dictated self-interest of external great powers - be it China, Japan, or the United States.
The Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula presented before the media was another step that allowed North Korean leader to challenge the world's preconceptions. It helped to dispel the picture of him being a rigid, autocratic leader in favour of a humanised statesman, intent on working to advance the cause of peace and national reconciliation. In a manner of speaking, it was a propaganda victory for Mr Kim.
It also denoted that the world needs to recognise the nuclear and missile advances that had been achieved by the North. Consequently by calling for "phased…disarmament" and intentionally downplaying the expectation of immediate progress while emphasising the need for step-by-step negotiations, Kim established his own terms of reference. This approach, according to some analysts, echoed the themes of past efforts during the previous Korean leader's summits of 2000 and 2007, and also in the 1991 bilateral Reconciliation and Non-Aggression agreement.
This time, like in past agreements, plans have been put forward to establish joint liaison missions, military dialogue and confidence-building measures, economic co-operation, and the expansion of contact between the citizens of the two countries. However, this time, in addition, the Declaration of April 27 has also seen the two countries pledging, for example, "to cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, sea and air…" and providing a series of key dates for the early implementation by both sides of a raft of new confidence-building measures. These include the cessation of "all hostile acts" near the demilitarised zone by May 01, the start of bilateral military talks in May, joint participation by the two Koreas in the 2018 Asian Games, the re-establishment of family reunions by August 15, and, perhaps most importantly of all, a return visit to the North by President Moon's by the autumn of this year. This made the future dynamics more specific and is likely to foster more momentum and urgency.
In Para 3, sub-para (3) of the Declaration, both sides have also declared that "during this year (2018) that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armstice Agreement, South and North Korea have agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime." The logic behind this approach of including external actors has been interpreted by many as an understanding that would lower the risk of conflict on the peninsula - something that over the last year has led to the use of aggressive language from US President Donald Trump.
The expanding of the equation has obviously been triggered off because of the pro-active nature of the efforts that have already been carried out surreptitiously by Trump, Kim and the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
President Trump in his own way has already acknowledged the importance of China in this evolving process. On April 27 he tweeted that we should "not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea. Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!"
President Moon has also cleverly and repeatedly allowed Mr Trump to assume credit for the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, recognising perhaps that boosting the US President's ego was the best way of minimising the risk of war and keeping Mr Trump engaged in dialogue with the North. Moon's discussion on the phone with Trump immediately after his meeting with Kim also underlined his political astuteness and strategic vision. Moon and Trump also spoke separately to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who praised the success of the summit as long as it leads to "concrete action" on the part of North Korea.
The much anticipated Trump-Kim summit in May or early June will be critical in determining the sincerity of North Korea's commitment to a peaceful settlement. Pyongyang's professed pledge to "denuclearisation" is likely to be the subject of minute analysis. It might also be very different from Washington's demand for "comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible" nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, this Summit could also be the subject of scrutiny for measuring the gap between the US and North Korea on this issue. It will also be an important opportunity to ascertain how far the US and Japan have developed their own strategy for narrowing the differences with the North.
This has assumed particular significance with a statement issued on April 29 by the South Korean President's Office that North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri will close down in May. Presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan has said that Mr Kim had conveyed that he "would carry out the closing of the nuclear test site in May" and that he "would soon invite experts of South Korea and the US to disclose the process to the international community with transparency".
It may be noted that this test site is situated in mountainous terrain in the north-eastern corner of North Korea and is supposed to be the North's main nuclear facility. The nuclear tests have been carried out in this location in a system of tunnels dug below Mount Mantap, near the Punggye-ri site. Six nuclear tests have been carried out there since 2006.
A word of caution. We must not forget that there have been grim historical precedents where diplomatic efforts to ease the Korean standoff have foundered on effectively verifying the North's willingness to dismantle its weapons programmes -- and its propensity to bamboozle.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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