International relations is supposed to be a high-minded discipline. It is politics at the highest level, as the world knows no higher power than a national sovereign. The politicians in the international relations are often elevated beyond the banalities of governance, having transcended the pedestrian worries about keeping the road free of potholes. They are considered “statesmen,” the titans of humanity that set the rules for the world we live in. All kinds of abstract theories proliferate about how states, through their statesmen, think and behave.
Then we come to a moment like this, that suddenly breaks us out of the spell of those theories, and makes us realize this is all human endeavor, whose foundation ultimately is one man speaking to another.
|Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un's tea time, broadcast live to the world. (source)|
Plenty of history was made in the inter-Korean summit on April 27. It was the first time that a North Korean leader stepped foot on the South Korean territory. It was the first inter-Korean summit that was televised live. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which North Korea put denuclearization as a topic for negotiations. It was the first inter-Korean summit in which wives of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un—Kim Jeong-suk and Ri Sol Ju, respectively—met each other to dine together.
So it may be a bit of a letdown that the substance of the Panmunjeom Declaration—the first joint statement between the leaders of the two Koreas—seems a bit thin. It’s not nothing, to be sure: the two Koreas agreed to cease all hostile acts, engage in a mutual reduction of forces along the demilitarized zone, and set up a “peace zone” in the Yellow Sea so that civilian fishing there could resume. The two Koreas would establish a liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, and link together rails and roads. Separated family meeting is set for August, followed by Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang. Most importantly, the two Koreas will work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War that technically is ongoing.
Obviously, most of the points are aspirational. The most concrete and immediately helpful point is the Yellow Sea peace zone, as the body of water west of the Korean Peninsula is the only place in which the two Koreas still engage in hostilities at a regular interval. (As recently as 2010, North Korea attacked and sank a South Korean naval ship killing 46 sailors, and shelled the Yeonpyeong Island with artillery.) But denuclearization clearly is not going to happen immediately, if it happens at all. Many of these points were recycled from the previous inter-Korean summits from 2000 and 2007, under South Korea’s liberal administrations. Kim Jong Un says he is shutting down his nuclear testing facility and having the site available for international inspection, but even that measure (or at least, a comparable measure) has occurred previously as well. Seizing on this, the critics—the most churlish boors whose hearts were hardened beyond the capacity to be moved by the significance of the moment—gnashed their teeth and rent their clothes about how they have all seen this before, Kim Jong Un is lying, and all of this will end in tears.
|Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in together steps over the |
concrete beam that marks the military demarcation line (source)
But 2018 being a reprise of 2000 and 2007 is not a reason to fret. There is a good reason why the two Koreas had to re-affirm the previous commitments from 2000 and 2007 to get back to where they were 11 years ago: because the state of the affairs has considerably deteriorated in the interim. North Korea likely has the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon-mounted ICBM to the United States. It has also attacked and killed South Korean soldiers and civilians. South Korea responded by cutting off economic exchange programs and calling for sanctions against North Korea. Just six months ago, with Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury” to “totally destroy North Korea,” a military conflict appeared to be all but certain—yet here we are. The moment when Kim Jong Un was in the South Korean territory was the farthest moment away from a war the two Koreas have ever had. That’s not nothing. In fact, that’s quite a lot of something.
It is worth noting the other reason why the re-affirmation of 2018 was necessary: the total failure of United States and South Korea's North Korea policy for the past decade. In 2008, South Korea’s presidency went from liberal to conservative, ushering in a decade of hawkish polices. United States went the other direction as Barack Obama came into office, but Obama’s main North Korea policy was a lukewarm, “let’s do nothing and see if North Korea would collapse on its own,” which was given a fancy name “strategic patience.” As we all know, North Korea did not collapse. In a decade since 2008, North Korea went from a rudimentary nuclear weapon that may or may not have worked to a credible showing of a nuclear weapon-mounted intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the continental United States.
Where is the accounting of blame for the past decade? The critics of the 2018 inter-Korean summit must answer that threshold question first. The critics must explain why their preferred policy of “not talking to North Korea” failed to produce any result for the past decade. Read Nicholas Eberstadt on the New York Times, Max Boot on the Washington Post, or Eli Lake on Bloomberg View—all of them decry the previous failed attempts at a dialogue in the early 2000s, but have zero reference to the events of the past ten years, although the immediate past more obviously informs where things stand today.
Despite its many significant faults, the Sunshine Policy era of 1998 to 2007 still had several positives. Millions of South Korean visited North Korea. Separated families were able to meet regularly. Tens of thousands of North Koreans got a taste of capitalism by working in South Korea’s factories set up in Kaesong, North Korea. Tens of thousands of North Koreans successfully escaped their country and settled in South Korea in an orderly manner. What does the conservative era from 2008 to 2017 have to show for? Why aren’t we talking more about the insane outrage that a fucking shaman daughter was editing the Dresden Speech, Park Geun-hye’s signature North Korea policy statement? Why is there no recognition that Obama’s “strategic patience” was nothing more than another instance of US liberal’s ideational bankruptcy when it comes to foreign policy?
The lack of answers for these most obvious inquiries reveals something important: the critics of the inter-Korean summit are out of ideas. For the past decade, they tried their own idea of trying to denuclearize North Korea, and failed. Read Eberstadt, Boot or Lake above again, or really, any take critical of the inter-Korean summit. Even as they criticize, the critics fail to present any alternative that would denuclearize North Korea while avoiding a nuclear war. The fact that they only criticize the actual events unfolding today without being able to offer a different path of their own clearly attests: they got nothing.
Then it’s no surprise that South Korean president Moon Jae-in has been the one driving the process. When I survey the intellectual landscape on North Korea analysis, I see liberal-leaning South Korean analysts supplying the most daring and innovative paths forward. Contrary to critics who can only harp on how this round of talks is just like the last rounds of talks, the South Korean analysts have thought deeply about the shortcomings of the Sunshine Policy era and came up with new ideas, which Moon Jae-in is implementing now.
As unlikely as these events may seem, they have followed the exact path that Moon Jae-in had plotted out. The way forward is likely to be even more treacherous, as we all know that the implementation is the real game. To see where we are headed, you could do worse than studying what the South Korean leadership has drawn up—which I will discuss more in depth in the next post.
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