After 65 years, is peace finally coming to Korea?


THERE are moments in history which appear to be pivotal, when the hopes and fears of generations seem set to melt away. Is the sudden rapprochement between the nuclear-armed hermit regime of North Korea and its compatriots in the south of this divided country really such a moment?

Yesterday a summit next month was announced between the presidents of North and South Korea. A high level delegation from south has just visited Pyongyang where it was given the red carpet treatment and dined with Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un. Afterward it was reported merely that further talks had been agreed. The news that Kim will soon meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in was a surprise. The encounter may have been finalized over the newly-reinstalled hot line between Pyongyang and Seoul.

The groundwork for these developments was laid at last month’s Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang when athletes from North and South united in competition. The hockey match in which they played together may become as iconic as the table tennis team that former US President Richard Nixon sent to China in 1971which began the thaw in the deeply-frozen relations between Beijing and Washington.

But affecting and heart-warming as these gestures are, they are just that. The big question is why the North Korean dictator has embarked upon this apparent radical diplomatic shift. The first thing to say is that the two Koreas have been here before. Past rapprochements between North and South have not lasted. So, what is it that might be different this time? The obvious answer is China.

Historically nominally Communist North Korea has survived with support from Moscow and Beijing. Last December, after Pyongyang staged further ballistic missile tests, Russia and China joined a unanimous Security Council vote on a resolution drafted by the United States, which imposed sanctions including the cutting of North Korea’s fuel imports by up to 90 percent. It is unclear to what extent the Chinese have implemented the sanctions. However, by backing the US resolution, Beijing put down a clear marker demonstrating its exasperation with its unruly and unpredictable ally. The Trump White House positively purred at the development.

But the Chinese play a long game. They are seeking to assert their dominance in South East Asia and challenge the long-standing US military and diplomatic hegemony in the region. They just announced a $175 billion of military spending for this year, up nine percent. South Korea is a major US military host. The 28,500 American troops there can be reinforced rapidly. Were Seoul to be convinced it was no longer threatened by the Pyongyang, if even North-South reunification talks were to begin in earnest, evacuation of the US bases would be part of the deal. Then it would be Beijing doing the purring.

But one important step must be taken first. The 1953 truce which stopped the Korea war must be converted into a formal peace. As one of the belligerents 65 years ago, the United Nations would have to be party to peace agreement. Provided the terms were reasonable, Washington could not stop the signing. At which point the pressure for its soldiers, sailors and airmen to ship out of their South Korean bases would probably be irresistible. Thereafter, China’s military and diplomatic influence in the region would become markedly stronger at the expense of Washington.