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From containment to engagement

The Inter-Korean Summit after years of hostility ushered in a ray of hope which Washington must use to ensure diplomatic peace.

From containment to engagement
The recent Inter-Korean Summit between the leaders of Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (North Korea), Kim Jong-un and Republic of Korea's (South Korea) Moon Jae–in, at the South Korean side of Panmunjeon truce village, is a significant event across the entire stretch of what has been a rather volatile Korean history. It was indeed a historic moment, anxiously watched by the world, when the North Korean leader crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), for the first time, and stepped into the southern part of Korea. This was the third North-South summit held since the end of the Korean War. Earlier, the two Inter-Korean summits were held between the then South Korean President's Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in the years 2000 and 2007 respectively in Pyongyang.
In South Korea, the dynamics of Inter-Korean relations have always been an evolving and interchanging phenomenon, especially with respect to the Presidencies and their political affiliations, which are broadly divided between the Left-Liberal Progressives and the Conservatives. The change of guard in Inter-Korean relations often occurred at the time of transfer of power from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Under the liberal regimes, the 'Sunshine Policy' of Kim Dae-jung and 'Peace and Prosperity Policy' of Roh Moo-hyun were classic examples of South Korea's concentrated efforts at a reconciliation with North Korea. In this period (1998-2007), there were significant inter-Korean reconciliations that took place through various engagements. This period was also known as the 'Containment to Engagement' period, with great optimism for the possibility of a future Korean unification. The paradigm shift in bilateral ties began in 2007, with the election of conservative President, Lee Mung-bak and continued by Park Geun-hye in 2012. They not only altered the previous engagement stance but also supported external economic sanctions on Pyongyang through their containment policy. On the economic front, the Lee initiated 'May 24 Measures' against DPRK, after the suspicious Cheonan corvette incident, was also in place. These sanctions included the suspension of all major economic co-operation between the two Koreas, barring North Korean ships passing through the South Korean waters, prohibiting South Korean citizens from visiting and also putting a bar on any new investments in North Korea. Pyongyang claimed on various occasions that, the May 24 sanctions are fundamental obstacles to the two Koreas' co-operation and dialogue.
It is obvious that the present South Korean President Moon Jae-in had been elected on a left-liberal platform and was trying to revere the existing containment policy with North Korea. In fact, previously, Moon has had enough experience as a Presidential Secretary under the liberal President Roh Moo-hyun in drafting an engagement policy with North Korea. The diplomatic stage for peace was prepared through the recently held Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Utilising this opportunity, the heavily sanctioned North Korea sent a high-level delegation under Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, to Seoul and offered to put a proposition for denuclearisation on the table in exchange for security guarantees.
The third Inter-Korean summit, held this time, concluded a landmark 13- point 'Panmunjeon Declaration' to fix the nuclear issue and revive a permanent peace solution for the Korean Peninsula. Significantly, from now on, South Korea's Moon and North Korean Kim have decided to build upon trust through regular summits and hotline talks. The two Koreas also agreed to ease their existing military tensions and work towards achieving a nuclear-free region and peace regime in the Korean peninsula. They pledged to improve the Inter-Korean relations and work towards achieving a future of unification through co-prosperity. Moreover, as a reciprocal action and to proceed with the peace process that has been initiated to a new enviable level, Moon will also visit Pyongyang later this year.
Though it is quite hard to achieve immediately, in the Declaration, both the Koreas underlined the importance of establishing everlasting peace in the Korean Peninsula by holding tripartite talks with the US and China, who were the signatories of the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953. The signed armistice agreement of that time was a ceasefire, not a permanent peace treaty; as a result, technically, both the Koreas stand at war till today. It is not first time that the two Koreas have discussed and agreed to bring an end to the War in the Korean Peninsula; in Article V of the 1992 Basic Agreement and the second Inter-Korean summit in 2007, they made a strong commitment to work together with the concerned parties to discuss a declaration and bring a peaceful end to the Korean War.
North Korea's Pragmatism
Notably, for the first time, Kim used the word 'complete denuclearisation' of North Korea in the summit. There is a tectonic shift in Kim Jong-un's tone and his way of dealing with situations in comparison with his predecessors, who were often more hostile and less willing to submit to diplomatic pressure. For instance, every year US and South Korea militaries carry out Joint Military exercises that Pyongyang has long referred to as utterly provocative. In fact, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles towards Japan in what was widely seen as a response to these joint-military exercises last year. North Korea always understood these joint exercises as preparation for an attack on Pyongyang; nonetheless, this time, Kim stated openly without indignation that 'Pyongyang will refrain from additional nuclear or missile tests and also understands that the routine joint military exercises between South Korea and the US are not in the offensive'. Hence, the announced declaration is also raising expectations for the upcoming summit between the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump in late May or early June. This meeting has been anticipated by the entire world, especially in light of the exchanges that have unfolded between the two leaders, who have appeared far more hostile than willing to bridge their diplomatic differences and move towards developing a permanent resolution for peace in the Koreas, and by virtue of it, through the rest of the Asia-Pacific world and beyond.
In conclusion, one can assert without ambiguity that the implementation of the 'Panmunjeon Declaration' is crucial to ending the hostility between the two Koreas. Though there is a shift from containment to engagement in the North and South's relationship with one another – to finally end with engagement on the basis of ultimate trust would be a match winner. They should work together closely, underlining absolute pragmatism, to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past that would push them back to square one – a state of hostility and crisis. However, one has to wait and watch, as now the ball is in Washington DC's court and the big joint summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump is sure to add more fuel to the changing positive equations in the sensitive Korean Peninsula.
(Dr. Sudhakar Vaddi is Assistant Professor, GD Goenka University, Gurugram. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Sudhakar Vaddi

Sudhakar Vaddi

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