As Trump and Kim shake hands, what does this mean for Koreans?

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by Dr Rebecca Johnson via OpenDemocracy

 

To implement the Singapore and Panmunjom commitments, what is needed is a collective plan to denuclearize security relations across North-East Asia. 

Two vain men met in Singapore, posed for the cameras and signed a joint statement. Neither US President Donald Trump nor North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un deserve to be trusted, so why should we be cautiously hopeful that the Singapore Summit might this time lead to more sustainable peace and disarmament in the Korean Peninsula?

The answer came in a text from a South Korean friend: “Now we can start to hope.”

I met her as both of us joined over a thousand Korean women in a 5 km peace walk across Unification Bridge to Dorasan station in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on 26 May, just two days after Trump aggressively pulled out of his agreement to meet Kim in Singapore.

The mood on that women’s peace walk was defiant.  “Don’t let Trump derail our peace train!” shouted some, and “Korean people take back the power to make peace!”  The international delegation from Women Cross DMZ called on Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to “Pick up the phone and keep your peace process going.”  As we wearily headed back to Seoul, the news broke that Moon and Kim had done just that – they had quietly met in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) just a few kilometres north of where we’d been walking.

The 80 million.

This is why there is cause for hope now, despite deep scepticism about the personalities, purposes and politics of Trump and Kim.  Because it isn’t just about these two narcissistic egos.  It’s about the hopes and fears of 80 million Korean people.

Instead of railing at Trump when he wobbled on 24 May, Moon and Kim met again in the DMZ within two days, and so demonstrated that they were prepared to carry forward the Panmunjom process they had begun on 27 April.  This is the firmer foundation for peace and security in Korea, and it can be delivered through the sustained, intelligent actions of thoughtful leaders such as Moon Jae-in, who has shown remarkable understanding of how to work constructively with Kim – if he is given the chance.

Trump is someone who likes to take credit, not be left behind as the train pulls forward and leaves him standing, looking foolish.  He likes to crow (especially over his Democrat predecessor, as we saw in his press conference before leaving Singapore).  The partisan nature of US politics enabled Nixon to reach out to China in 1972 – he would have been the first to attack any Democrat president who tried to open that important strategic door at the time.   And so it is with Trump. But now he’ll need to face down the wreckers who are stuck in the past.

What would the wreckers be wrecking?

Reactions to the Joint Statement are, unsurprisingly, quite mixed.  Across different news coverage, some have dismissed it as “nothing new” or  “insubstantial”, while others have spluttered that Trump has “gone too far” and “got nothing in return”.

So let’s look more closely at the four key commitments that form the operative substance of the Trump-Kim statement.

1) The first paragraph links the “desire of the peoples” of the United States and North Korea “for peace and prosperity”.

Trump got elected on his promises of increased prosperity for “America First”, and he approached this summit by boasting of his business acumen as a deal maker.  The emphasis Kim put on economic development in the Inter-Korean meetings signalled his recognition that he has to do more to lift North Korea out of the abject poverty, starvation and under-development caused by decades of isolation, economic rigidity and sanctions.  Kim took over from his father in 2011, as dictators in the Middle East were overthrown, and he is smart enough to realise that if he doesn’t make changes in North Korea, the same fate could befall him personally, regardless of how many nuclear weapons he has.

2) Next, Trump and Kim promise to “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”.

Koreans on both sides have long called for a legally binding Peace Treaty and normalization of relations, not least to reunite divided families.  In 1953, when the bloodiest military phase of the Korean War was brought to an end amidst deep anti-communist, anti-capitalist hostilities, only an Armistice agreement was possible.  What continued was not just a cold war, but a continuous, simmering war, with over a thousand US nuclear weapons deployed in the South from 1958 until officially removed in 1991.

As well as directly involving North Korea, China and the United States, the long-sought peace treaty could be given greater ownership and stability by making sure that all the nations that were involved in the Korean War also sign, including South Korea, Russia and the other 23 UN Member States.  Their signatures may not be legally necessary, but would be politically and symbolically important to mark that the war is finally over.

In relation to this, Trump surprised many by publicly committing to halt US wargames in the region. He was referring to what the US and its “nuclear umbrella” allies prefer to call “military exercises”.  Euphemisms, however, have not diminished the purpose or the risks and miscalculations that can ensue from such military practices and games, as illustrated by NATO’s 1983 “Able Archer” wargames and other nuclear close calls.

Trump’s promise was undoubtedly a response to Kim’s concerns, but also echoes the views of South Korean, Japanese and international advocates who have long argued that progress towards peace and denuclearization necessitates dialling down the military threats to North Korea as well.

North Korea’s nuclear programme and missile tests are both consequence and cause of the heavy US military presence in South Korea, provoking and also serving to justify new US-South Korean missile defence bases built, most recently in Jeju, a formerly designated “island of peace”.  Over 25,000 US military personnel continue to serve in some 15 bases in South Korea, and though no landbased nuclear weapons are supposed to be stationed there since 1991, nuclear-armed submarines and ships continue to enter Korean waters and ports.

 

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Women walking across DMZ, 26 May 2018. Jeehyun Kwon WCDMZ. All rights reserved.
Women walking across DMZ, 26 May 2018. Jeehyun Kwon WCDMZ. All rights reserved.