Less than two weeks after South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics in which athletes from both Korean states marched under a Unity Flag, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sent a Presidential delegation to Pyongyang where top officials from Seoul met with Kim Jong-un and other major DPRK politicians. The atmosphere has been described as warm, cordial and productive. According to initial reports Kim Jong-un “repeatedly clarified that it is our consistent and principled stand and his firm will work to vigorously advance the North-South relations and write a new history of national reunification by the concerted efforts of our nation to be proud in the world”.
Throughout the meetings, there is an undeniable feeling of what ought to be called ‘1989ism’. This refers to the phenomenon when in a very short period of months, German reunification went from a fantasy or nightmare (depending on one’s perspective), to something tangible, to something inevitable and then it suddenly happened. While some of the overtones in Pyongyang may echo the good will that filled the air in late 1980s Berlin, above the sound of David Hasselhoff concerts, there are some profound differences.
In the late 1980s, the Warsaw Pact crumbled in Europe due to a combination of political incompetence, supine US political pressure combined with the soft power of Ronald Reagan’s unquestionably good acting skills (aka “Tear down this wall”), and a genuine curiosity of some European peoples of the east regarding the material goods available to their cousins in the west. This was particularly true in respect of Germany which had historically high living standards.
By contrast, the DPRK has approached its southern neighbour from a position of renewed military strength, cultural confidence and in spite of sanctions, a rapidly growing economy in which living standards continue to rise. While North Korea technically remains poorer than the South, in terms of the DPRK’s own history, Kim Jong-un is seen as an economic miracle worker in so far as he dramatically turned around the economic slump of the 1990s and has embraced modern technological innovation, which perhaps should be unsurprising given that Kim is in his mid 30s.
Beyond this, there are cultural considerations to account for. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that North Koreans would sooner “eat grass” than surrender their nationhood in the face of US aggression and insofar as North Koreans do feel a loyalty to their political system that far outmatches anything that existed in Europe during the 1980s, this is a very astute and accurate observation.
Finally, the rapprochement between North and South Korea was at the instigation of Pyongyang. During his New Year’s Address, it was Kim Jong-un who proposed strengthening ties with the South and due to President Moon’s moderate stance vis-a-vis his extremist predecessor, he was all too willing to work with his counterparts in Pyongyang. Thus, far from being a result of soft or hard US power, the decision taken by Pyongyang to extend an olive branch to the South, was taken with total independence. It was motivated not from a position of confusion or weakness, but of strength and confidence. Finally, because the North/South Korean rapprochement has been the product of political elites rather than of East German style ‘people power’, one cannot say that US soft power has anything to do with the events on the Korean peninsula, the way it did in late 1980s Europe.
It is also crucial to understand that even if a formal reunification is to eventually take place, it will not and in many ways cannot happen along the lines of East Germany being political absorbed into the West. Instead, what might happen is a variance on the Chinese model of ‘One Country Two Systems’ that has been applied to Hong Kong and Macau upon their political return to China.
“Originally proposed by Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, the “one country–two systems” initiative set forth the notion that Hong Kong and Macau would continue to enjoy the retention of certain elements of domestic autonomy, based on the legal systems inherited from Britain and Portugal, respectively. In spite of this, both Hong Kong and Macau would become indivisible parts of the People’s Republic of China in every legal sense–merely having autonomous status within the frame work of the laws of the PRC. Since 1997 in Hong Kong and 1999 in Macau, this has been the status quo and it has generally functioned smoothly.
With the cooperation of the current authorities in Pyongyang and Seoul, it is possible for Korea to exist as a country which has one legal international representative, one foreign policy, one trade policy, but with two unique internal political systems, unique agreements to distribute national wealth according to the needs of various regions and initially, some sort of internal passport system, along with lines of the Propiska used in the Soviet Union.
Based on the good will which seems to exist between the governments of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, such a ‘one country–two systems’ agreement is not impossible. The biggest stumbling block is the United States. The US has sufficiently militarised South Korea to the point that China would be cautious about any unification of Korea that involved a Seoul lead endeavour. If all of Korea were to become the Republic of Korea (as presently compromised), this means that the US could technically put weapons of mass destruction within inches of Chinese territory. Therefore, Korean unification led by the RoC, would almost certainly be contingent on the total demilitarisation of the peninsula, in line with long term Russian and Chinese proposals which are currently languishing in the briefcases of Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, due to America’s refusal to cease delivering and testing THAAD missile systems in South Korea.
On the other hand, the US would almost certainly never allow Korea to be united under the present DPRK system and for that matter nor would the international capitalist business community for obvious reasons.
Because of this, the US remains the biggest obstacle not just to political unification in Korea but to regional peace. Due to the unique circumstances of Korea neighbouring both Russia and China, unification must go hand in hand with demilitarisation and likewise, a continually divided Korea means that demilitarisation is practically impossible, as the DPRK would never and frankly should never let down its guard against the US weapons on the other side of the DMZ and likewise, the US seems hellbent on threatening North Korea irrespective of the olive branches Kim Jong-un extends to the South”.
Because of this, both Korean states are well aware that they must not only reach agreements with one another, but that they cannot let the US play a heavy hand in thwarting the obvious good will between the governments of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. In this sense, Moon is far more compromised than Kim. While South Korea has an increasingly number of trade disputes with Donald Trump’s protectionist administration, South Korea is still not in a position to go ‘fully multipolar’ at this stage, although this could become the reality over the next decade. By contrast, Kim Jong-un has taken the gamble that his nation stands more to lose by being defenceless against the US as Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya were between 1999 and 2011, than by completing its nuclear deterrent and therefore risking a US that would start what would be a nuclear conflict in East Asia, something that clearly China would never stand for in spite of its poor relations with Pyongyang at present.
The gamble seems to have paid off as Pyongyang officials have stated that they would not need a nuclear deterrent if it had international security guarantees and that furthermore, the DPRK is happy to freeze its missile and nuclear tests during the course of would-be talks with the US.
All of this means that due to Kim Jong-un’s combination of brinkmanship, diplomacy, economic and security revival and olive branches extended to the South, the US is now largely at the mercy of events in Korea where in the late 1980s, events in Europe were largely being pulled into the US orbit, as though by a colossal magnet.
Now that Kim Jong-un has thrown the ball into the US court, the US will have to publicly face the fact that its calculated rhetorical and cognitive dissonance regarding Korea has been exposed. The US while claiming to want peace, has continually shot down opportunities for talks without preconditions. Furthermore, the US has a strategic and economic interest in fanning the flames of conflict in Korea due to the fact that this increases US arm sales, helps to justify an increasingly hated US presence in South Korea and most importantly, it creates a perennial headache on the border with Russia and China, thus retarding the progress of multilateral cooperative schemes that could otherwise begin to flourish between the two Koreas, Russia and China.
Now though, with Russia, China, South Korea and increasingly North Korea on the same page, the US will have to either make concessions when faced by an onslaught of peace, or otherwise move the goalposts of the discussion in order to falsely accuse North Korea of failing to approach peace realistically, when in reality, North Korea has gone above and beyond what is reasonable, when it comes to making offers and extending olive branches in order to once and for all settle the frozen status of the Korean War.
Kim Jong-un has proved himself the master diplomat, now it is time for America to lay its cards on the table.