The Korean war never ended. A ceasefire in 1953 paused the worst ravages of the conflict that has killed over four million people, but the Korean peninsula has remained in insecurity ever since. Peace is long overdue and recent moves by key regional players to move towards a secure Korea must be welcomed and built upon.
When Donald Trump stepped across the military demarcation that separates North and South Korea on June 30th, he made history as the first standing US president to go into North Korea, for so long an enemy territory and a source of fear and insecurity.
Trump was greeted by North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un and the two leaders then crossed to South Korea where they met South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump, visibly relieved that everything had gone to plan, stated that working working-level meetings were to be set up in the coming weeks led by his Special Representative, Stephen Biegun.
It is not yet clear what has been agreed between the parties, but the New York Times has reported that a “nuclear freeze” has been agreed to, which would stabilise the current status quo and provide American recognition and acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state. In return for the freeze, it is likely that North Korea will get the sanctions relief it has been seeking as well as the security assurances it always needs given its history.
In 2018 Trump and Kim Jong-un became the first sitting US president and North Korean leader to meet, only a year after they had exchanged threats and abusive comments. On Singapore’s Sentosa island, the two men held talks that produced a “comprehensive” document, committing North Korea to work towards “the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and with a promise of “new relations” between Washington and Pyongyang.
In 2018 the US had demanded “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” and declared a commitment to build “a stable and lasting peace” on the peninsula.
“I think both sides will be very impressed with the result,” President Trump had declared at a signing ceremony with Mr Kim.
But in 2019 things appeared to have gone awry. At the Hanoi Summit, the Trump administration demanded unilateral disarmament in exchange for future economic support to be provided to Pyongyang. North Korea had already offered to dismantle key aspects of its nuclear programme and provide a moratorium on missile testing. In return Pyongyang had requested a partial lifting of economic sanctions.
But Washington’s hard line failed to bring about the stability Trump sought, and tensions rose again. Chairman Kim gave Trump until the end of 2019 to change tack or North Korea would return to nuclear testing – what it sees as a defence against foreign aggression. Trump was then in a position in which he could look foolish after claiming to have curtailed the chances of nuclear war in the Korean peninsula.
Another key player is China. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to North Korea last week and affirmed Beijing’s close ties with the country. China fought with the North Koreans when the Korean war was a hot war, 1950-53, and is a signatory to the Armistice Agreement.
China is also the North’s largest trading partner, and so American sanctions policy depends on China for its effectiveness. Like North Korea, China wants a peace agreement and wants Korean security to be assured. This Chinese role has contributed to the maximum pressure approach of the Trump administration not working.
Another factor is that US sanctions have compounded the suffering of ordinary North Koreans, many of who are in dire need of food, medicine and materials. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana has stated: “In my view, the sanctions regime is, in fact, having a detrimental impact on the livelihood of the North Koreans.” Quintana has said that the sanctions should be gradually lifted as they “shouldn’t be used as a punitive instrument.”
Under President Obama the United States’ policy known as the “strategic patience” initiative did not work and North Korea tested five nuclear weapons and perfected its long-range missile program. Now, a US president is in a position where he feels compelled to act to ease tensions in a crucial strategic region, one that has for too long been a source of insecurity. These efforts towards peace on the Korean peninsula should be welcomed as moves for the stabilisation of the global system and an opportunity for the Korean people on both sides of the border to move towards a comprehensive peace treaty at last.