Averting from the brink of war, thankfully the two Korean states proceeded this week to hold breakthrough peace talks. It was the first time the two adversaries held formal negotiations in nearly two years.
The absence of talks, by contrast, saw tensions escalate over the past year especially, to the point where an all-out war was in danger of breaking out.
Russia and China have for several months now been earnestly deploring this void in diplomacy. Moscow and Beijing had consistently called on all sides to sit down to dialogue in order to resolve the decades-old conflict, based on the principles of commitment to peaceful means, mutual respect and no preconditions being imposed for any dialogue taking place.
Another key factor to enable talks was the freezing of military activities. Again, this cessation of military actions was urged by Russia and China.
When South Korea prevailed on its American ally to postpone military exercises at the start of this year, Pyongyang quickly reciprocated this week by holding dialogue with a delegation from Seoul in the peace village at Panmunjom near the DMZ. The North has always protested US-led military maneuvers around the Korean Peninsula as being tantamount to an act of war, thereby impeding any peace opening.
So far, North Korea has refrained from conducting nuclear or ballistic missile tests. Last year, a spate of such tests raised tensions in the region and around the globe. The American administration of President Donald Trump had repeatedly threatened a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea, accusing the latter of intimidating Washington’s allies in the region. North Korea, in turn, said that American forces were a threat to its security. The fiery rhetoric between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un also heaped on the vicious cycle of tensions.
The progress made at the talks this week was impressive. Initially, the meeting was held to discuss North Korea participating in the forthcoming Winter Olympics being held in South Korea next month. The North duly accepted an invitation to attend the event, thus allaying security concerns over the Games. Moreover, unexpectedly, the two sides then agreed to hold bilateral military discussions to explore ways to dial down wider antagonism on the Peninsula. This is a very encouraging development that must be consolidated through future talks.
Significantly, the United States joined with China and Russia to commend the Korean initiative this week. President Trump gave his backing to South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in to engage with the North. Trump even said that he would be prepared to hold face-to-face dialogue with Kim Jong-un in the future “if conditions were right”.
Kim Jong-un deserves credit for extending an olive branch to South Korea in his New Year’s Day address. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in likewise deserves credit for reciprocating and for offering the concession on halting military exercises. President Trump has surprisingly kept prudent counsel by refraining from reckless remarks and permitting the two Koreas to engage without controversy.
This is exactly the kind of diplomatic engagement that Russia and China have been advocating. The progress made this week – and hopefully in the near future – shows that diplomacy can work. The alternative is tensions, misunderstandings and catastrophic conflict.
On the wary side, however, much US media commentary this week expressed a cynical view that North Korea was attempting to drive a wedge between Washington and South Korea, or that Pyongyang was simply playing for time to further develop its nuclear weapons. Such cynicism is lamentable and counterproductive. It runs the risk of jeopardizing the peaceful engagement by prompting Washington to intrude on the talks process by making high-handed demands on North Korea.
One such demand is the insistence that North Korea must terminate its nuclear program as a condition for dialogue to proceed to substantive level. Pyongyang has categorically stated that it will not give up its nuclear program unilaterally. So, if Washington pursues such a course of issuing ultimatums and generally treating North Korea like a “rogue state”, the diplomatic path will become a dead-end.
Washington must somehow muster the modesty and wisdom to realize its responsibility in the long-running Korean conflict. As former US President Jimmy Carter has advised, Washington must sign a formal peace treaty with North Korea to mark the definitive end to the Korean War (1950-53). North Korea needs to have security guarantees.
If the talks that resumed this week can be allowed to develop with goodwill, mutual respect and commitment to peace then there is every reason for optimism. Indeed, diplomacy can work. That is the key lesson this week. Now let’s give peace a chance.