At the height of U.S. power following Japan’s defeat, Washington itself wrote the rules of the game for the Korean Peninsula — whether others are willing to continue playing along indefinitely remains another question entirely.
Photos showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korea President Moon Jae-in are displayed to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korean Peninsula near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 13, 2018. Ahn Young-joon | AP
The announcement – which focused on the creation of various joint projects including inter-Korean railway, energy, and economic links – sharply diverges from the United States’ insistence that all pursue a “maximum pressure” strategy to denuclearize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, as the North is officially known).
Yet Moon’s plan also hinges on the slim chance that the U.S. will offer sanctions relief — an unlikely prospect given the chill in relations that has set back in between Pyongyang and Washington following their brief honeymoon after the Singapore summit in June.
Speaking Wednesday in a nationally televised speech at a ceremony marking Korea’s liberation from the 1910-1945 Japanese rule that ended 73 years ago, Moon stressed his goal of achieving the unification of Korea through concrete, tangible steps.
According to Yonhap News, Moon said:
We must overcome such a division for our survival and development. Even though a political unification may be a long way from here, establishing peace between the South and the North and freely visiting each other, and forming a joint economic community is true liberation to us.”
Noting the progress made in reestablishing relations and moving toward peace between the two Korean states, the president hailed the June 12 summit held in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, which he claimed promised “peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” though he added:
The development of South-North Korean relations is not an additional outcome of development in North Korea-U.S. ties. Rather, the development of South-North Korean relations is the driving force that promotes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The president also highlighted plans to reactivate suspended special economic zones, such as the Kaesong industrial park in the North, while also establishing new zones in the South where workers from the DPRK would participate.
His ambitious vision for peace, Moon explained, would begin with the reestablishment of rail links and end with a “Northeast Asian railroad community” he hoped would include China, Japan, Russia, Mongolia, and even the United States. The idea has already been supported through assessments carried out on both sides, and a groundbreaking ceremony would take place by the end of the year, he added.
Comparing his vision to the European Union’s origins as a coal and steel-oriented customs union, Moon explained:
This community will lead to an energy bloc and economic bloc in Northeast Asia by expanding our economic area to the northern continent and becoming the foundation of co-existence and prosperity in Northeast Asia … And this will mark the start to a multilateral security system in Northeast Asia.”
No sanctions, no peace
The announcement by President Moon was a clear reiteration of his long-held position that diplomacy and good-will gestures are the road toward not only peace between North and South, but eventual economic and political reunification.
In an address to the National Assembly last November that precipitated Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic overture to the South earlier this year, Moon said:
The destiny of the Korean nation must be determined by Koreans. The unfortunate past in which our destiny was determined against our will must never be allowed to recur.”
Yet any move toward economic integration or cooperation in the most basic sense would require that United Nations Security Council sanctions pushed last year by the United States be lifted.
On Wednesday, the U.S. introduced fresh sanctions on a Russian port service firm and Chinese companies involved in the sale of alcohol and tobacco to the DPRK in breach of Washington’s own sanctions.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry blasted the move as a “destructive,” peace-spoiling effort, stating:
The destructive U.S. tactics, pursued beyond the framework of the UN Security Council and its 1718 Sanctions Committee [related to the DPRK], is only able to undermine the progress, which has been made recently toward the settlement.”
The North chides the South
The South Korean president is caught in a bind: on the one hand, Seoul remains a much weaker junior partner to Washington. His own speech was given on the 70-year anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Korea, which was essentially a right-wing Cold War proxy state. While Moon may desire unification, pro-U.S. sentiments and loyalties are still widespread across South Korean elites and the broader population. Any move to defy the sanctions-addicted Trump administration could result in a bruising economic battle that would see Moon’s poll numbers tumble.
Yet Pyongyang seems single-mindedly driven to develop its ramshackle economy and implement market reforms similar to those implemented in Vietnam and China, which saw both states rapidly modernize while their respective state sectors and communist parties remained intact. Sanctions preclude any possibility that the DPRK can become integrated into the capitalist world-economy.
While the White House has continued to demand that the DPRK implement the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) of its arsenal as a precondition to lifting sanctions, Pyongyang has complained that it has seen precious little in terms of confidence-building measures from Washington beyond the cessation of U.S.-South Korean war games.
An editorial published last Friday in the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, noted the importance of replacing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War with a permanent peace accord as a first step toward creating a conducive atmosphere for continuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The commentary stated:
It shows that unilateral efforts cannot solve problems. Both sides should make efforts to settle the problems … The DPRK-U.S. relations should make a big step forward as required by a new phase of the development of history.”
On Thursday, the newspaper chided the South Korean government for abiding by UN and U.S. sanctions in a manner that prevents the April 27 inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration from being fully implemented:
If [Seoul] joins and blindly follows sanctions pressure by foreign forces maneuvering to deter inter-Korean exchanges, the North-South relations cannot be advanced in the interests of the Korean people and the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration cannot be pushed.”
It added that the blame for this belongs to the U.S., which has pressured Seoul and South Korean elites and large corporations from pursuing inter-Korean exchanges with the North, noting:
The U.S. is unjustly intervening in the internal affairs of our nation and the inter-Korean relationship, hindering the reconciliation, unity, dialogue and cooperation between Koreas.”
Echoing Moon’s declaration the previous day, the paper stressed:
Cooperation within our nation, or national self-reliance, is the basic position for the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration and improvement of the inter-Korean relationship.”
If the United States is unwilling to follow through on its pledges to offer the DPRK the recognition and respect it desires, Pyongyang hopes that at least President Moon realizes that the opportunity to ensure lasting peace and unity on the Korean peninsula may finally be within his grasp.
The ball may seem to be in Seoul’s court, but Washington won’t hesitate to cry foul in an attempt to end the match. After all, at the height of U.S. power following Japan’s defeat, Washington itself wrote the rules of the game — whether others are willing to continue playing along indefinitely remains another question entirely.