The meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea was acclaimed as “historic.” The two leaders hugged, “smiled broadly, shook each other’s hand vigorously and toasted each other with glasses of champagne.” Reporters noted that the “opening formalities seemed surprisingly relaxed, exceeding the expectations of many people, including perhaps those of the principals themselves. The South Korean leader said we must “proceed together on a path of reconciliation and cooperation.” The North Korean leader replied that “you will not be disappointed.”
Sound familiar? It should, because the news coverage of the 2000 meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang parallels the euphoria over Friday’s meeting in Panmunjom between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son. If anything, the 2000 meeting produced more tangible results: Not only declarations about ending the Korean War and uniting the two countries, but also concrete steps toward creating a joint South Korean-North Korean industrial park in Kaesong , allow South Korean tourists to visit the North, and to reunify families long divided by the demilitarized zone. Between 1998 and 2008, South Korea provided some $8 billion in economic assistance to North Korea in the hope that all of this aid would create a kinder, gentler regime. Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.
And yet the Sunshine Policy, so widely heralded at the time, is now widely judged a failure. Despite North Korea’s promises, it did nothing to ease the repression of its populace or to end its nuclear and missile programs. It turned out Kim Dae-jung only achieved that “historic” 2000 summit by offering Kim Jong Il a $500 million bribe. Another summit was held in 2007, arranged by Moon Jae-in, then an aide to President Roh Moo-hyun, and it too was rapturously acclaimed. But the next year, a conservative government took power in Seoul and ended the Sunshine Policy.
It is worth keeping that sobering history in mind before we get too carried away over the latest inter-Korean summit. Yes, it’s a good thing the two Korean leaders are meeting and talking. It is certainly better than the saber-rattling we saw last year, with North Korea testing nuclear weapons and missiles, and President Trump responding with threats to rain down “fire and fury.”
But let’s not imagine that Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un are making “historic” breakthroughs with their summit declaration. It is full of lofty but empty language promising “no more war on the Korean Peninsula.” The two leaders agreed to transform the demilitarized zone — actually the most heavily militarized area in the world — into a “peace zone,” and to conclude the Korean War with a “robust peace regime.” They even pledged a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
Yada, yada, yada. Upon closer examination, there is very little of substance here — certainly nothing to justify Trump’s hyperbolic tweet: “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”
The two Koreas do not have the power to conclude a peace treaty because South Korea was not a party to the 1953 armistice. It was an agreement between the United States (acting on behalf of the United Nations Command), China and North Korea. If there is to be a peace treaty, it will involve those powers, not just South Korea.
Kim will welcome a peace agreement if it hastens the departure of U.S. troops, but he will try to deal with the United States directly. He will not want to officially recognize South Korea as an independent state, because doing so would force him to renounce 70 years of regime propaganda that the Kim family is destined to rule the entire peninsula on behalf of the Korean “workers.” As Nicholas Eberstadt noted in the New York Times, “The decision would call into question why, exactly, North Korea should hold power at all. It would be system-threatening — a mistake on the scale of the string of blunders by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that doomed the Soviet Union.” Likewise, for all the empty blather about “denuclearization,” Kim Jong Un has no intention of giving up a nuclear arsenal that he sees as his guarantor of regime — and indeed personal — survival.
There is no reason to think Kim is another Gorbachev — a genuine liberal reformer who just happened to rise to the top of a totalitarian system. Human rights violations in North Korea are as awful as ever — a fact highlighted by the death of the American student Otto Warmbier shortly after being released from North Korean custody. The North Korean nuclear and missile programs are more advanced than ever. Kim is not suddenly being reborn as a liberal peacenik; he is pursuing his family’s old policy of mixing provocations such as missile tests with peace offensives designed to convince the West to relax sanctions and extend his odious regime a life line. We would be well advised not to fall for this gambit — again.
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