In Jeju, optimism for a new geopolitical normal

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In Jeju, optimism for a new geopolitical normal


Lawmakers, diplomats and scholars from South Korea and Japan participate in a panel on Wednesday at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity to mark 20 years since the signing of a landmark declaration by Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to bolster relations between the two countries. [KIM KYOUNG-ROK]

SEOGWIPO, Jeju - World leaders at the 13th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity on this picturesque island off Korea’s southern coast on Wednesday reflected on the role of bold and visionary leadership in enabling change on the Korean Peninsula as they analyzed the results of recent summits that have upended the region’s geopolitics.

“Inter-Korean exchanges will be carried out in two-track form,” South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said at the forum’s opening ceremony. The first track includes items that can be tackled now: cooperating with North Korea on sports, easing military tensions on the border and organizing reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

“But as for cooperation on railroads and other economic projects, we cannot carry them out in times of UN sanctions,” Lee said. “The South Korean government will be conducting initial surveys into the projects for now.”

First held in 2001, the three-day Jeju Forum brings together 5,500 people from 70 countries. This year’s event comes on the heels of two inter-Korean summits in April and May and the first-ever summit between a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader on June 12.

In his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in relayed his vision for inter-Korean cooperation, which includes the creation of a single market for the two Koreas and connecting it with the Chinese and Russian economies to create a Northeast Asian economic community.

Prime Minister Lee reasoned that the current state of detente could last longer than previous attempts to improve inter-Korean relations.

“Kim Jong-un has firm resolve to improve the economic situation of his country,” Lee said. “It is hard to imagine Kim choosing to return to the state of escalating military tensions. As far as I see it, Kim understands that the economic prosperity of his country is closely linked with the North’s resolve to denuclearize.”

“Secondly,” he added, “I think the two Koreas through their summits - and the United States and North Korea through their summit - have built trust between each other. Thirdly, I emphasize that the agreements issued between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea were not simply agreements among high-level officials but among leaders of countries. This means that there is more promise to realize what has been agreed upon.”

In his opening speech, Jeju’s governor, Won Hee-ryong, invited the leaders of the two Koreas and the United States to hold any upcoming summit on the island, which he called the “isle of world peace.”

“In March, I officially requested the South Korean government and relevant authorities consider Jeju as a venue for the summit between the United States and North Korea and a trilateral summit among South Korea, North Korea and the United States,” Won said. Previous summits on the island include ones between South Korea and the Soviet Union in 1991; the United States and South Korea in 1996; and South Korea and Japan in 2004.

“I would like to propose that Jeju hold a follow-up summit between the United States and North Korea for the ultimate goal of denuclearizing North Korea,” Won said, citing the “symbolic significance of Jeju as the isle of world peace,” which makes “Jeju the perfect place for talks to discuss dismantlement of the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula.”

Governor Won serves as chairman of the Jeju Forum’s Organizing Committee, and Suh Chung-ha, president of the Jeju Peace Institute, serves as chairman of the forum’s Executive Committee. The forum is co-hosted by the Jeju government, International Peace Foundation, East Asia Foundation and JoongAng Ilbo, and sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Jeju Free International City Development Center.

Panelists at the plenary discussed the main theme of this year’s forum, “Reengineering Peace for Asia.” Guests included Ban Ki-moon, former secretary general of the United Nations; Yasuo Fukuda, former prime minister of Japan; and Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada. The session was moderated by Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of JoongAng Holdings and former Korean ambassador to the United States.

“No one would have believed 30 years ago that the Soviet Union would implode, that Eastern Europe would be able to embrace democracy and that Germany would be unified,” Mulroney said. “It happened largely as a result of bold visionary leadership by key leaders at that time. Astute political leadership can make good things happen, but the essential ingredient is mutual trust.”

When Hong asked panelists about the likelihood of a McDonald’s opening in Pyongyang, Mulroney replied, “I will bet on success going forward.”

Mulroney, who served as Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993, drew on his own involvement in the “transformational changes in Europe almost three decades ago.” He believes U.S. President Donald Trump understands the “historic implications” of the denuclearization talks with North Korea and “is not insensitive to personal achievement while he is serving as president of the United States.”

“Just think what a better world we would have if bold leadership, vision and diplomatic skills can bring about a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” Mulroney said. “Canada stands solidly behind the efforts of President Trump, and we salute President Moon Jae-in for his tactful tenacity in nurturing this extraordinary summit.”

But the big question, he warned, “left in abeyance, is how the interests of the biggest party not at the table - China - will become part of the negotiating process.”

Hong, who served as President Moon’s special envoy to the United States in 2017, said there is “a tectonic shift for the region” with Kim “at the very center of the big change.”

“With this new ‘great game’ playing out on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia,” he said, “the world is watching to see if it will break down the post-Cold War confrontational mood between the two Koreas, as well as between the South Korea-U.S.-Japan maritime bloc and the North Korea-China-Russia continental bloc. But I believe everything depends on North Korea’s sincerity in the denuclearization process.”

Ban, in turn, said the Jeju Forum’s theme to “re-engineer peace and advance a new era of prosperity for Asia” is “especially relevant and timely.”

“But to realize this hope,” he said, “we need to work together to rebuild multilateral diplomacy, robust security cooperation and partnership, and faith in our globalized economy.” Ban warned against the current trend toward nationalism, intolerance and exclusiveness in the world.

“We must all keep focused on our ultimate objective: the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korean nuclear devices and programs,” Ban said. “Failure is not an option.” He warned against “sudden moves that could possibly undercut the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance.”

Likewise, Fukuda said, “I believe that there is a general atmosphere in support of the U.S.-North Korea summit talks … and hope that the United States and North Korea summit will bear fruits ultimately, and we hope to provide support and that relevant countries will be engaging in close consultations.” He emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation among South Korea, China and Japan in addressing global challenges.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark declaration signed by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in October 1998, which invited a delegation of Japanese lawmakers, students and business professionals to Korea to bolster bilateral cooperation. In the declaration, Obuchi expressed his “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s colonization of Korea.

The occasion has been hailed as a breakthrough in the two countries’ relations. At the Jeju Forum, lawmakers from South Korea and Japan took part in the session, “The 20th Anniversary of Korea-Japan Joint Declaration: A New Korea-Japan Partnership towards the 21st Century,” which discussed bilateral relations and cultural exchanges. Speakers included Kang Chang-il, head of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union, and his Japanese counterpart, Fukushiro Nukaga of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a former finance minister.

Later in the day, at the dinner banquet, Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, said her government would “stay the course” and turn this moment of engagement into one that can lead to a “nuclear-free, peaceful Korean Peninsula.”

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