Moon’s Move To Revive ‘Sunshine Policy’
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and the ceasefire in 1953 resulted in the division of the Korean Peninsula, pitting one side against the other in a state of tension. Since then the Korean Peninsula has remained divided for over six decades drawing a vital strategic interest. But still the US, Russia, China and Japan have been playing their role for the unification process with an objective of making the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free and peaceful.
Although these big four nations held talks with the two Koreas for several times, the desired outcome has not yet been realised.
Now again, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s formal offer of talks with North Korea earlier this week has raised hopes that the ongoing tension in the peninsula would be eased soon.
South Korea said it was still waiting for North Korea’s response. If Pyongyang agrees to sit for talks, it will be the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the two rival countries in 19 months. The two sides sat for the last official talks in December 2015. The last six-party talks were also held in 2015.
Even if the talks do not materialise, the fact that one of the two parties, which still technically remain at war, are willing to break the deadlock is a significant step towards easing tension in a highly volatile part of the world.
President Moon Jae-in came to power only in May this year, and his policy towards the northern neighbour differs from his two conservative predecessors who toed a hard line when it came to dealing with Pyongyang.
President Moon’s overture is a clear indication that he prefers diplomacy to try to improve ties between the two Koreas and persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programme.
The offer of direct talks is significant as it came just two weeks after North Korea conducted the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
As per President Moon’s proposal, two sets of talks would explore ways to bring down the ongoing tension, halt hostile acts on the border, restore cross-border military and government hotlines and resume family reunions of ageing Koreans separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Unlike his predecessors, President Moon has come to realise that any military conflict with North Korea would be disastrous for the South. And clearly, sanctions don’t seem to be changing North Korea’s behaviour. Pyongyang has been under sanctions for years. However, North Korea has not shied from robustly pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
It is believed that nearly 77% of South Koreans favoured President Moon’s latest proposal to return to the inter-Korean talks.
Observers believe North Korea will probably accept Moon’s offer of talks on easing border tensions if not now then perhaps at a later date. But Pyongyang might set a precondition for the talks, such as a suspension of annual South Korean-US military drills.
However, chances for talks on family reunions are slim as North Korea has made it clear that it will not agree to a new reunion programme unless Seoul returns 12 waitresses who defected to South Korea last year from China. North Korea says South Korean agents abducted the waitresses, but Seoul has said they defected willingly.
With North Korea’s successful intercontinental missile test this month, the Americans again woke up to breathless alarm over possible military strikes and the specter of a North Korean nuclear attack.
However, the US, the most powerful nation in the world with the most powerful military, can easily tackle North Korea if the latter attacks the US.
In contrast, North Korea is a desperately poor country and is a totalitarian state that consistently fails to meet the basic needs of its 23 million people. The United Nations World Food Programme says 70% of the North’s citizens did not have enough food to eat in 2016. An estimated 25 percent of the North’s children are physically stunted. The country ranks 213 out of 230 countries in GDP per capita. The North has a military of 1.2 million, the world’s fifth largest.
The US must, therefore, maintain its policy of the strongest deterrence. It should adopt a more flexible approach, which would assuage Chinese concerns about the regime’s collapse in North Korea. Indeed, the US might have a political solution in mind, China might be more willing to wield much harsher “sticks” – truly crushing sanctions on food and energy, particularly oil and coal.
As former Secretary of Defence William Perry has said, “We must take North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Therefore, one hopes that the latest outreach by President Moon leads to the second edition of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ that the two Koreas witnessed between 1998 and 2008, when the world saw a flurry of political engagements, agreements and exchange programmes between them.
China, which has close ties to Pyongyang and can make the latter see the merits of engaging in talks with its southern neighbour, has also welcomed President Moon’s proposal. Chinese President Xi Jinping also stressed that China “is committed to the target of denuclearisation on the peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula, and advocates resolving problems through peaceful means”.
The threat North Korea poses is serious. Thus, China believes that North Korea should halt any plan for nuclear and missile activities “for its own security”. China has proposed a two-pronged approach. First, North Korea stops its nuclear and missile tests, while the US and South Korea halt their joint large-scale military exercises. Second, all parties involved return to the negotiating table, with the parallel goals of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula and concluding a peace accord to replace the 64-year-old Korean War Armistice Agreement.
As North Korea has been testing many missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new crisis is brewing on the Korean Peninsula. Besides military drill and despite objections from Russia and China, the US deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.
In an earlier meeting, North Korea put conditions that Washington should sign a non-aggression treaty, open diplomatic ties and provide economic aid. But the United States has demanded North Korea dismantled its nuclear programme before any concessions are offered.
The Koreans hope their arduous efforts for nuke-free peace and unification will bear fruit in the near future, the dawning of tomorrow holds special meaning for the 70 million people in the world who live in a divided country even in this 21st century. They are hopeful that the standoff may end and that the last vestige of the cold war legacy will be dismantled.
Since the issue cannot be solved in one go, the dialogue needs to be institutionalised with high level meets and could bring gradually a change. Then through denuclearisation, a lasting peace could be established on the Korean Peninsula.