In a week from today, history will be made on the Korean peninsula. For the first time in over 65 years, a North Korean leader will step onto South Korean soil and the two sides will hold talks with a view to announcing an end to the war. The Korean War lasted from 1950-53 and had merely ended in a truce, which has meant for all these decades the North and South were still technically at war.
“A great transition that can create a new world order in world history is beginning to take shape,” is how South Korean President Moon Jae-in has described what is coming down the pipeline. It is amazing to think that just a few months ago North Korean nuclear tests were being launched over Japan sending thousands fleeing into underground bunkers and basements after receiving emergency alerts on their cell phones. The panic of Tokyo’s citizens in those moments was palpable.
Now we are about to witness what seemed like the impossible - a long-term peace. It is no less significant than the fall of the Berlin wall in terms of breaking down the impenetrable barriers that have separated North and South in order to forge a path towards peaceful coexistence and joint development.
It seems that the political will on both sides is so strong to ensure these talks succeed that very little could derail their common objective. The truth is that North and South Koreans have sought reconciliation and reunification for decades. In my interactions with civilians and diplomats from both the North and South, most have articulated this fervent desire. It is at such a historical juncture that we have to embrace the moment and give it all the moral support we can muster.
The bilateral summit between North and South which will commence next Friday will set the stage for the much anticipated Trump-Kim Jong-Un Summit that is likely to be held at the end of May. North Korea’s preference is to sign a non-aggression pact with South Korea first, thereby ending the war, and sign a peace treaty with the US thereafter. It has always been the contention of the North Koreans that their war has been with the US, and its continued presence on the Korean peninsula.
Were US troops, military bases and defence systems in South Korea to dissolve into the tapestry of history, there would be no reason left for North Korea to hold onto its nuclear weapons. The possession of a nuclear arsenal had always served two purposes: to act as a deterrent to attempts at regime change, and as a bargaining chip to get the Americans off the Korean peninsula. It seems this strategy has worked just as much as the West believes its crippling sanctions regime has.
The reason why Kim Jong-Un can so confidently agree to talks with the US on denuclearisation is that he already knows that the US is ready and willing to pull out of South Korea. It was Trump’s position even on the campaign trail that maintaining so many troops and bases in South Korea is costing the US too much. Currently, the US is paying around US$1.3 billion to maintain its military presence in South Korea with around 28,500 troops deployed. The South Koreans are paying US$866 million on top of that to fund the US presence, which means that having the US exit the Korean peninsula will be a significant cost saving move for both sides, and secure a viable peace with the North.
US defence spending on Japan far exceeds that on South Korea, as the US is maintaining 50 000 troops in Japan at a cost of US$5.5 billion, while Japan contributes an additional US$4 billion to US base expenses. It would obviously be a real concern to Japan that in the context of a new regional security arrangement the US may decide to scale down its military presence in Japan. This could end up being costly for Japan if it is forced to carry a greater share of the burden for its own military defence.
It also seems that the winds of change on the Korean peninsula have isolated Japanese President Shinzo Abe to some extent, given that he took a very hawkish position on North Korea at a time that South Korea and the US were driving towards engagement. Abe embarked on an urgent trip to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago this week, where he would have raised Japan’s security concerns around any US-North Korea deal, particularly North Korea retaining short and intermediate-range missiles. With protests at home and plummeting popularity, Abe needed a policy win with Trump and has even sought his own summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un so as not to be left out of the emerging new security dynamics.
Nothing will stop the peace train that is pummelling towards the demilitarised zone next week. Preparations are full steam ahead and the CIA Director is already meeting with Kim Jong-Un. South Korean Ambassador to South Africa Park Jong-Dae is particularly optimistic about the prospects for the upcoming peace talks and believes that Trump will be effective in making a deal by using a different approach to the traditional diplomacy.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor.