Both North and South Korea have been in the political and global spotlight as of late for a variety of reasons. Whether that be the hair raising back and forth between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — complete with nuclear threats and sarcastic slurs, or South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Olympic games in PyeongChang – complete with a unification of the North and South Korean Women’s Hockey team. Most recently was North Korea’s release of three American detainees who were returned back to U.S. soil earlier this month. The inter-Korean conference which took place in April is yet another major political move for both countries, with ramifications on a local and global scale.
The recent summit took place in Panmunjom, a joint security area in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) bordering both countries. According to CBS News, South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, greeted Kim Jong-un at the Military Demarcation Line as he made history, becoming “the first North Korean leader to visit the South” since the Korean Armistice. The highly choreographed summit was rife with fanfare and symbolism — a literal red carpet was rolled out to welcome Mr. Kim and the two leaders planted a pine tree, a symbol of peace, on the Military Demarcation Line, as well as a goal for unification and peace.
Both leaders signed the “Panmunjom Declaration,” which serves more as an agreement between the two countries to strive towards an official end to the Korean War, rather than an actual peace treaty. Immediate stipulations included a complete cease of all hostile acts on land, air and sea; the transformation of the DMZ into a “peace zone;” and the end of all propaganda broadcasts and leafletting. While the declaration never completely addresses or settles on a timeline for these changes, there is hope that it will open the door to further negotiations. Future agreements could also address North Korea’s concern over the large U.S. Military presence in South Korea as well as South Korea’s desire for North Korea’s denuclearization. Another CBS article claims that North Korea, “may also be looking to use the talks with Moon to set up the Trump summit”. If followed to fruition, this agreement could be the beginning to a new, unified chapter for the Korean Peninsula; however, there are several internal and external factors which may affect its success.
The whirlwind of political agreements, maneuvers, sanctions, and summits, surrounding the Koreas may seem strange considering the vast economic and political differences between the two. With a shared population of more than 78 million people, the sociopolitical and economic states of both countries reveal two polar opposites occupying one whole. Before understanding the local and global significance of the most recent inter-Korean agreements, it might help to understand where this intense divide first began.
The Korean War and, from a global perspective, the Cold War are two of the major factors which led to the current divide. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Korean War had its immediate origins in the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of World War II in September 1945”. Unlike some of the other territories freed from Japanese control in 1945, Korea had been annexed to Japan since 1910 and had no formal or immediate governmental infrastructure to fall back on. As a result, two major nationalist movements arose in the aftermath. The Marxist-influenced communist revolutionaries were eventually led by Kim Il-sung (Grandfather to Kim Jong-un) who became the first dictator of North Korea, and the European and Japanese-influenced democratic factions eventually elected U.S.-supported Syngman Rhee as the first South Korean president. In 1947, influenced by then U.S. president, Harry Truman, the United Nations assumed responsibility for the country and South Korea became an independent entity in 1948. This clash of ideologies, exacerbated by the political maneuvers of two major powers embroiled in a war of doctrine, led to the seemingly-inevitable Korean War.
Ignited by North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, the Korean War waged for three short years, but left major destruction and loss of life on both sides of the border. The fighting ended in July 1953, but the two states were never able to agree on a peace treaty and instead signed an Armistice later that year. Throughout the war’s duration, North Korea was supplied and advised by the Soviet Union and aided by China whereas South Korea was backed by the United Nations and provided military support from the United States. These influences and alliances can still be seen throughout both Koreas’ current political maneuvers and agendas.
Although the Panmunjom Declaration seems like a breath of relief in a political landscape characterized by its intra- and international hostility and scandal, there is reason to pause before celebration. The dismantling of past negotiations — specifically with North Korea over their nuclearization — as far back as 1994 and as recent as 2009; the recently amended U.S. sanctions on North Korea, and the disintegration of the U.S.-Iran deal, all cast a cautionary shadow over the recent proceedings.
Image Credit: Kim Jong-un & Moon Jae-in Holding Hands via Reuters