A lasting framework for peaceTensions at the world’s most heavily armed border are at their peak since the two Koreas ended a three-year war with an armistice on July 27, 1953. Over the last six decades, we have been swirled and twirled in a combative tide that has built up to today’s nearly warlike state. The contingency plans - and precautions to avoid a war - have outlived their days, and that’s what has set off sharp alarms across the peninsula.
The people of this land, who have lived through the last 60 years in a twilight zone between war and peace, as well as neighboring and allied countries who have high stakes in the region are beginning to lose patience. As North Korea increasingly drifts away from the rest of the world and the general path of history, its extreme choices - chest-thumping threats backed with nuclear weapons and missiles - could be part of the preordained path of a maverick state that has been pushed to extremities. After running out of resources to maintain its lonely path as a geopolitical oddity, North Korea is finally fiddling with its last resort.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visits to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo once again underscored the importance of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff, and it helped ease the heightened tensions on the peninsula somewhat. In a surely positive move, U.S. and Chinese leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the September 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks in which the two Koreas, America, Russia, China and Japan agreed on the shared goal of “verifiable denuclearization” of the peninsula. They said they intend to use it as the foundation of future dialogue and negotiations with North Korea.
Equally as important as a consensus on a solution to the nuclear conundrum, however, is a reexamination of the seven-year trajectory that led to today’s deadlock in order to build a new peace framework on the peninsula.
The two Koreas built and maintained a conciliatory and cooperative ambiance from 1989 to 1992 by reaching a landmark agreement to work toward a peaceful and incremental union based on a two-state coexistence instead of the South Korea-led forced unification policy of the cold war era. After accepting the basic idea of peaceful coexistence and cooperation while maintaining two separate systems, North Korea signed the 1992 basic agreement on the pillars of reconciliation, nonaggression, and exchanges and cooperation, following the 1991 joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the simultaneous joining of South and North Korea in the UN in the same year.
However, all the high expectations and hopes for a path to peace were dashed after North Korea’s surreptitious nuclear weapons program was discovered and Pyongyang refused inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1993.
What has led North Korea to throw away the chance of peaceful progress with South Korea?
Shortly after the end of the cold war, the U.S. emerged as the sole global superpower. Even as the two Koreas were on cooperative footing, North Korea believed that its security and fate ultimately lay in the hands of America and it grew anxious for little signs of friendly assurance from Washington. With its regime at risk, Pyongyang might have decided to develop nuclear weapons as perhaps the most effective mechanism of self-defense.
Over the last two decades, however, Washington has been more engrossed with the conflict in the Middle East than North Korea’s nuclear problem, and Beijing was perfectly satisfied with maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, all of which can explain what caused the current nuclear impasse on the peninsula.
History has never been boring and it has had inarguably surprising turns. While North Korea pursued and advanced its nuclear programs nonchalantly, the U.S. gradually lost its single superpower status on the global stage due to the rapid rise of China. The solution to the Korean Peninsula and regional peace now depends on the cooperative labor of the two world powers, America and China.
Beijing is now pressured to play an active role to solve the North Korea problem to maintain smooth relations with the U.S. and South Korea, which are China’s key strategic and business partners, as well as to stave off a nuclear and missile arms race in the region. Beijing has been asked by the global community to use its influence over Pyongyang to end this high-stakes game.
Lasting regional peace and denuclearization ultimately depends on inter-Korean consensus on coexistence and coprosperity with guarantees and support from the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. It would be most effective if all concerned parties built a new framework by employing all possible diplomatic, security and economic means to help North Korea come away from its loner’s path and rejoin the global community.
Such challenging work calls for a shared vision and trust among the leaders of the related countries. The upcoming summit in Washington between the new leaders of South Korea and the U.S. could be a good starting point. I hope the two leaders do their best to devise a new diplomatic initiative to establish a new framework for a permanent peace process on the peninsula.
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily
*The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo