Not for the First Time
The peace talks that took place on April 27 between the leaders of North and South Korea are signaling the de jure end to the Korean War. Though the ceasefire was signed in 1953, the two sides were still officially in the state of war. This is not the first time for the two Koreas to have a rapprochement — both countries had already attempted to reach peaceful agreements in the past. There were even attempts to unite the country.
The first postwar negotiations between North and South Korea took place in 1971, when the main principles of reunification were proposed. According to the July 4th North-South Joint Statement, the reunification had to occur under three conditions: the pursuit of reunification from both countries without any external influence; the peaceful reunification without any military attempts of subjugating the other side; and the promotion of national unity over the differences in the political systems and ideologies. To ease the tension and create the atmosphere of mutual trust, both countries agreed on terminating any military provocations and taking positive measures on avoiding unintentional military incidents. Despite the statement’s significant role on further negotiations, the agreement had failed due to the personal ambitions and unwillingness of both sides to cooperate properly. In particular, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, viewed the declaration as a tool for taking South Korea away from the American sphere of influence.
Even when both countries practically stopped any contacts, they still had proposals for reunification. In 1980, on the sixth congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, then North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung proposed the idea of creating the Democratic Confederative Republic of Koryo. The confederation would have been a country with two systems — two governments, two ideologies, but at the same time one nation, one ministry of defense, and one foreign policy. “In preserving the name of a single state that existed in our country, widely known to the whole world, and reflecting the general political ideals of the North and the South — the desire for democracy — it would be very appropriate to call the proposed confederative state the Democratic Confederation Republic of Koryo,” said Kim Il-Sung in his proposal. The name was based on the early feudal state of Koryo (also known as Goryeo), which existed between the 10th and 14th century. This proposal, however, was not even commented on by South Korean officials.
In the late 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to the end, the confrontation between the two Koreas was briefly stopped. The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, which became a catalyst for the country’s leadership to improve relations with the communist countries, was an important factor in decreasing the tension. Despite the boycott from North Korea, 159 countries took part in the Olympic Games — the record amount of participants at the time. Notably, both sides of the Cold War blocs had arrived in Seoul, including the national teams of the Soviet Union and China. North Korea, however, was still the main source of headache for the hosts in South Korea. According to declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency, North Korean intelligence services were planning to stage terrorist attacks in Seoul to forcefully stop the Olympic Games. A year before that, on November 27, 1987, two North Korean spies planted a bomb inside Korean Air’s Boeing 707. As a result of the attack by the North Korean government’s order, 115 people were killed on the Baghdad-Seoul flight. Kim Hyon-hui, the captured North Korean agent responsible for the attack, was pardoned as she was considered a victim of North Korea’s propaganda.
The increasing prestige of South Korea in the international arena and the active diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China were not in vain. Despite the hostility, Pyongyang had agreed to start negotiations with Seoul. The negotiations resulted in the “Agreement on reconciliation, non-aggression and exchanges and cooperation between South and North” in 1991, where both sides had agreed to establish a North-South Joint Military Commission to preserve the terms of non-aggression. In 1992, the joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was signed. However, it was violated as North Korea protested against the joint military drills between South Korea and the US.
On June 15, 2000, another North-South joint declaration was released, where both sides had agreed to implement policies of economic cooperation, including cultural, sports, and health exchanges, and provide annual meetings for separated family members. This effort was not successful, yet again: in 2013, North Korea canceled all of the non-aggression agreements and started testing nuclear missiles. Besides that, North Korea carried out a few provocations, such as the strike on Yeonpyeong Island, where four South Koreans were killed.
This April, a historical summit between North and South took place in the demilitarized zone, where both countries agreed on signing the peace agreement. The leaders of North and South Korea have expressed their hopes on bringing peace to the Korean peninsula. The agreement on ending the war is planned to be signed by the end of this year.
Extremely Fast, Incredibly Close
Despite the numerous attempts at reconciliation of varying degrees, the relationship between the Koreas have never truly overcome its initial volatility for long. The fluctuating communication between the divided peninsula has always been under scrutiny by the rest of the world, as North Korea built its way to a nuclear powerhouse and refused outside intervention.
Merely eight months ago, the US and North Korea had been on the brink of an eruption; US President Donald Trump stated that he would unleash “fire and fury” after North Korea threatened retaliation against Guam due to its air force’s recent cooperation with the South Korean military. 2017 saw a bleak end, as North Korea fired another intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong-15, into the East Sea. Some even stated that the possibility of a real conflict seemed palpable.
Yet New Year’s Day marked a new page in history, as Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea was willing to participate in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Following suit, the Minister of Unification Myoung-Gyon Cho proposed an inter-Korean summit to North Korea the next day. What followed was a flurry of cooperative events, including the joint entrance during the Olympic opening ceremony, a unified women’s hockey team, and a series of peace concerts at Pyeongyang. The tension unravelled at an exponential pace, as both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un seemed eager to carry out initiative after initiative for collaboration between the two nations.
The efforts eventually culminated into the 2018 Inter-Korean summit on April 27 when President Moon and Kim, along with several other high-ranking officials, met the Joint Security Area of Panmunjeom beyond the de facto border. As the third one in history and ten years since the last, the summit reflected its two precedents, focusing on increased participation from both sides in minimizing friction and fostering cooperation. However, the summit and the subsequently signed Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula marked significant progress. By including articles specifically on military denuclearization of North Korea, it pedaled the discussion towards the “peace regime” of the peninsula and the formal end of the Korean War, which is currently under ceasefire status.
Under the declaration, the Koreas will strive to “alleviate nuclear tension” and reduce hostile military activities. The document stated that the nations will establish maritime peace zones and hold Defense Ministers Meetings. Finally, the two agreed, “through regular meetings and direct telephone conversations, to hold frequent and candid discussions on issues vital to the nation”. They will “establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides in the Gaeseong region”.
Beyond the militaristic and political implications, the recent developments certainly opened the floodgates for conversation among the people. Despite 60 years of a closed-door policy from North Korea, unification had always been at the forefront of South Korea’s policy with North Korea — perhaps most poignantly noted by the existence and name of the Ministry of Unification — and was reflected in the Korean education system. However, it is also a sentiment that has increasingly diminished over the years as the separation grew larger with time. Thus, the resultant public reaction towards the sudden progress is one of hope, worry, and, ultimately, wary optimism. The benefits and ramifications of the increased contact and possible unification linger in South Koreans’ mind, such as a change in required military service and economic participation in rebuilding the stagnant North Korean economy, estimated by the Financial Services Commission to be around 500 billion USD. The peace talk even generated immediate economic ripples across real estate, as land investments in Paju, a city near the border, doubled in March compared to the month previous. South Korean conglomerates are also eyeing investment opportunities in an open North Korea once sanctions lift.
As for the US and the rest of the world, denuclearization holds a steadfast position as the most important issue, a topic to be solved in the upcoming North Korea-US summits. Presidents Moon and Trump both commended North Korea for opening its dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site between March 23 and 25 to international journalists, stating that it was a “preliminary step towards complete denuclearization” and “a very smart and gracious gesture” respectively. The upcoming months will require an in-depth discussion among the US and the Koreas, as well as other world players such as China and Japan, to redefine the current standing and structure between the states as the talks proceed.
The Panmunjeom Declaration read, “[The Koreas will] strengthen mutual trust and jointly endeavor to strengthen the positive momentum towards continuous advancement of inter-Korean relations as well as peace, prosperity, and unification of the Korean Peninsula.” Whether the third time will truly be the charm, as the saying goes, and what will bloom across the broken down fences if so will be questions to be answered in due time.
Compiled by Duman Kuandyk and Juhoon Lee