The long wait for reunification

The demilitarized zone with South Korea on one side and North Korea on the otherReuters

This June marked 70 years of the Korean War. Even before the war, the two superpowers of the world at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, had divided this peninsular. The Soviet Union is no more and the Cold War is over. Two Vietnams are now one, the two Germanys have reunified, but the Korean peninsula remains divided. Actually the war hasn’t even ended officially.

The war which began on 25 June 1950 with the attack on South Korea by North Korea, ended three years later though the signing of an armistice agreement. But that agreement never led on to a peace treaty to officially end the war. Things have continued in this state for the last 70 years.

The South Korean Journalists Association of Korea (JAK) regularly organises an annual media event, the World Journalists Conference (WJC), with participation from countries all around the world. I had joined the conference held in June 2014. Now six years on, I joined the event once again, but this time virtually.

After joining the 2014 conference, I developed a keen interest in the Korean peninsula, the two Koreas, the division, the possibility of a reunification, the geopolitical implications and so on. And the experience at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the border that divides the two Koreas made we speculate at how strangely global politics has divided the people of a country and kept the country divided for so long.

After World War II, the two superpowers decided to divide up the Korean peninsula which was under Japanese occupation at the time. The views of the Korean people were simply not taken into cognizance.

North Korea is isolated from the rest of the world. The rest of the world does not have the scope to discern what the North Korean people actually what, what they think. Who knows how far they even want the two Koreas to reunite! But the WJC conference made me realise the depth of the desire of South Korea and its people, to reunify the Korean peninsula.

The theme of the conference had been about peace in the Korean peninsula and reunification of the two Koreas. During the virtual conference this year, one of the discussions was about 70 years since the Korean War and peace in the Korean peninsula.

When I returned from the conference last time, I wrote an article of ‘Two Koreas, dreaming to be one’ (Prothom Alo, 26 June, 2014). Six years have passed, but has there been any progress at all in establishing peace in the Korean peninsula, in nuclear disarmament and in reunification?

In 2018, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, held talks at the ‘village of peace’, Panmunjom, along the border of the two Koreas. The ‘Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification’ was adopted at the meeting. The two sides at the time had also agreed to work towards nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula with the support and cooperation of the international community.

Earlier, in January 2018, the two Koreas participated as one team in the women’s ice hockey event at the Winter Olympics held in South Korea. The team comprised of players from both Koreas.

And as part of international initiatives to this end, US President Trump met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times in the last six years. They held meeting in Singapore, Vietnam and in the border-lying village of Panmunjom. The US president’s visit to the Panmunjom village on North Korean soil was indeed a historical event.

In fact there have been many hitherto unconceivable events over the past six years. But has there been any tangible achievement? The three meetings between the two Koreas in 2018 had evoked hope. But that process has come to a standstill because the talks between Trump and Kim Jong-un did not yield any concrete results, Actually, because relations between North Korea and the US have not improved, no understanding is emerging between the two Koreas either.

Peace in the Korean peninsula or the reunification of the two Koreas depended much on the relations between the US and North Korea
Professor Eul-chul Lim, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University

Two South Korean experts, Eul-chul Lim, professor of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University and Son Taek Wang, Yeosijae Research Associate, were present at the discussion on 70 years of the Korean War and the way to peace in the peninsula, held at the World Journalists Conference. According to Professor Lim, the biggest obstacle to peace in the Korean peninsula was the lack of understanding between North Korea and the US. He felt that the basic solution lay in the wishes of North Korea. The existing embargo against the country posed as a threat to the people and development of North Korea. They wanted the embargo to be lifted. They would not take steps towards nuclear disarmament unless the embargo was lifted.

Under the circumstances, Professor Lim looked towards the US for certain initiatives, including direct communication between Pyongyang and Washington, making concessions for humanitarian aid to enter North Korea and relaxing the ban on US citizens visiting the country. He also felt that North Korea should halt its nuclear and ballistic missile testing and take initiative to return those detained during the Korean War who were still living. According to Professor Lim, peace in the Korean peninsula or the reunification of the two Koreas depended much on the relations between the US and North Korea.

Will either the US or China make such drastic concessions to fulfill the dreams of reunification nurtured by the Korean people?

However, is there actually scope to disregard the role of other countries which are active in global and regional geopolitics, particularly China, Japan or Russia? North Korea will only agree to nuclear disarmament when it feels that the US is not a threat to it. This would be possible if the US moved out of the Korean peninsula. But the presence of the US in the Korean peninsula does not ensure security just to South Korea, but to Japan as well. Both Japan and South Korea are allies of the US, but the Korean people have a historical aversion towards Japan which had occupied the Korean peninsula. To the Koreans, Japan is an occupation force. The people of the two countries have a long standing psychological enmity and rivalry. Japan is hardly likely to want to see a powerful and united Korea.

The border between North Korea and Russia may be very short in length, but the two countries are joined by land. Russia is also active in its efforts to exert its influence in regional and global geopolitics. Russia’s stance can in no way be overlooked regarding the future of the Korean peninsula.

In the meantime, the conflict and power rivalry between China and the US is on a steady rise. Observers foresee this animosity to grow further in the days to come. The US’ presence in the Korean peninsula gives it the opportunity to breathe down China’s neck. Will the US take the risk of relinquishing this leverage? On the other hand, devastated by the embargo and isolated from the rest of the world, North Korea basically survives on the support and assistance of China. China will lose this clout in the Korean peninsula if the two Koreas unite. Will either the US or China make such drastic concessions to fulfill the dreams of reunification nurtured by the Korean people?

South Korean analyst Son Taek Wang feels that the support of the international community on the question of the Korean peninsula was quite complex. That is why he spoke of mobilising global opinion in this regard. He highlighted that journalists could play a significant role in this regard.

It is unfortunate for the Korean people that the decision and implementation of the decision on whether or not the two Koreas should reunite, does not depend on their wishes or views. But it is obvious to any peace-loving people of the world that it is imperative to erase the line that divides the Korean peninsula. This division is indeed sad and painful. It has separated thousands of the people from their families. Over the past 70 years, many Koreans have died with this painful regret. The fear of war still remains in their hearts.

Who knows how much longer the people of Korea will have to wait!

AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at [email protected]