It all happened in just a few moments when North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un walked towards South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, at Panmunjom and shook hands. Kim then stepped over the demarcation line between North and South Korea and continued to shake hands with Moon. In a surreal moment, Kim than invited Moon to reciprocate by taking a step into North Korea. The two leaders then stepped into North Korea and shook hands while onlookers applauded. It was a historic moment, one which should be welcomed by the Korean people and the global community.
Kim and Moon then walked into South Korea on a red carpet accompanied by a procession dressed in traditional Korean clothing, attended a sort of pass and review and then a introduction to each other’s cabinets, Kim’s sister being a notable attendee. The Korean leaders then sat down and signed a pledge to end the Korean War which technically never ended. The Panmunjom agreement signed on April 27th states, “there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.” The agreement also includes language about ending all hostile acts between North and South Korea, cooperating on humanitarian issues, and transitioning the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into a peace zone. Overall, the signed agreement includes a lot of positive language and represents a bold step towards peace.
However, it remains to be seen how much follow through will take place. A similar agreement was hashed out between the KCIA director, Lee Hu Rak, with Kim Family Regime cadre members in Pyongyang in May of 1972, but nothing ever came of the agreement. In 1992, North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula which was obviously not honored by North Korea. Then in 2007 at the inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang, North and South Korea reached an agreement about moving forward towards peace and prosperity but like past agreements, this was nothing but hot air that the North had little intention of living up to. Whether the pledge made by the Korean leaders in Panmunjom this month means anything remains to be seen.
The reunification of the Korean peninsula, even if it comes without either party resorting to military force, will be a long, frustrating, and costly enterprise, one which will require bold leadership and steady hands throughout.
Inextricably connected to peace and the reunification of the Korean peninsula is the size, strength, and disposition of American troops in South Korea. Colonel (ret.) Dave Maxwell has pointed out that if the Korean War is formally ended, then South Korea can dissolve the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty if they choose and give the United States government one year to remove their military forces from their country. On the other hand, South Korea could extend their invitation to the US military to remain under a new Status of Forces Agreement as a security guarantee, although how politically acceptable this would be for South Koreans is debatable.
The reunification of the Korean peninsula would be as profound and as impactful for regional and global geopolitics as a historic compromise in the Middle East would be, leading to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. International relationships would shift, change, and re-form in new and different ways. A non-nuclear North Korea and the expulsion of American troops from Korea plays into the long-term strategic goals of another regional player: China.
The People’s Republic of China would like to see all US forces expelled from the pacific theater. A partial schism has been created with the encouragement of China in the Philippines working through the current President Rodrigo Duterte. Movements exist to have the US military removed from Okinawa, Japan. Getting American soldiers out of Korea would be a strategic grand slam for China who sees the US presence in the Pacific as inhibiting their long-term plans to become a regional, and then global, hegemon.
Featured Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second from left, during a meeting inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone Friday, April 27, 2018. Their discussions will be expected to focus on whether the North can be persuaded to give up its nuclear bombs. At right is Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)