On Friday last week, a historic moment in international diplomacy saw a potential breakthrough, heralding a possible end to the 65-year Cold War that has divided the Korean Peninsula.
While the world was focused on the tail end of French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the US, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at the Peace House in Panmunjom for an inter-Korean summit, resulting in the Panmunjom Declaration.
It was the third inter-Korean summit after the first in 2000 between then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and the second in 2007 between then-South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il.
This time around, a small piece of symbolic history was made in that it was the first time a North Korean leader had technically stepped foot on South Korean territory since 1953.
The resulting declaration agreed on the following: a North-South Liaison Office is to be established in Kaesong, North Korea; that separated families are to meet in August; that cross-border rail and roads are to be linked; a cessation of all hostile acts on land, air and sea; peace in the Yellow Sea (West Sea), thereby allowing civilian fishing from both sides; a phased reduction of military forces; a peace treaty to be signed this year; that both sides would work toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula; and that Moon is to visit Pyongyang this fall.
While it is still very early to claim a substantive and lasting breakthrough, this summit does mark a hugely significant breakthrough in one of East Asia’s most intractable confrontations.
While Moon, Kim Jong-un and his sister, Kim Yo-song, should be credited with this achievement, the stage for this summit was set primarily by the student and other protesters in South Korea, who successfully applied pressure to have former South Korean president Park Geun-hye impeached for abuse of power and coercion.
Park, the daughter of assassinated South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, was a legacy of a reactionary and hawkish conservative South Korean elite that had dominated South Korean politics since the end of the war.
Her removal and public outrage at her tarnishing of the office of the presidency led directly to the successful election of Moon, a former student activist, human rights lawyer and chief presidential secretary to Roh.
Moon, of the Democratic Party, known for being less accommodating to US influence on the South Korean government’s policies toward North Korea than his predecessor, helped facilitate the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games in which North Korean athletes participated, to much derision, intrigue and fanfare in international media.
At the Games we saw Kim Yo-song, apparently on secondment from her brother as a diplomatic envoy, use the occasion to engage in quiet diplomacy, which it seems laid much of the groundwork for the Panmunjom summit.
Above all, this appears to have been a solely Korean-managed event, sidelining both China and the US.
Although Kim Jong-un recently made his first official state visit to China, the somewhat strained interaction between himself and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), while cordial, belied the longstanding impression that Pyongyang and Beijing were steadfast allies working hand in glove to stymie US and Western interests in the region.
For Kim Jong-un, this summit has been a coup, not only in terms of recapturing the momentum for a Korean-derived solution to an internationally contrived tragedy that has killed and scared millions of Koreans, but also in terms of his image as a statesman.
In the glare of the international spotlight, Kim Jong-un and Moon have demonstrated character and maturity in leadership.
Kim Jong-un, despite his somewhat antediluvian aesthetic, has surprised a Western commentariat that had become too comfortable in resorting to racist caricaturization in service of a neocon narrative of North Korea as part of the so-called “Axis of Evil.”
In contrast, despite agreeing to a historic meeting with Kim Jong-un later this month, US President Donald Trump and US Department of State policy have been effectively neutered and marginalized.
Trump’s tweet welcoming the breakthrough, containing an inference that the US had a role in brokering the summit, speaks only to his egotism and incompetence, and should be dismissed offhand for its impetuousness and irrelevance.
This was a uniquely Korean moment for Koreans and should be celebrated as such.
For Taiwan, there are cautious lessons to be learned here.
First, US triangulated influence in Taiwan-China relations might be both a blessing and a curse.
With former CIA head Mike Pompeo now installed as US secretary of state, we could see a shift to an even more hawkish position on China on the Beltway, one that could end up either benefiting Taiwan or exacerbating its military vulnerability in the region.
It is also an opportunity for East Asia analysts to stop reducing and ring-fencing its evaluation of diplomatic tensions between states in the West Pacific to artificial and self-serving binaries, and start engaging with a holistic approach that includes the US, Japan, Taiwan, China and the Koreas as one inter-related dynamic.
International politics, as in trade, is never a simple dichotomy between two (or three) actors.
Second, the idea that Taiwan and China can arrive at a similar detente is a dangerous fantasy that ignores the vast differences in the relationship between the Koreas and that across the Taiwan Strait.
The 2015 summit between then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi in Singapore, for example, is not a comparable event.
Where North and South Korea have been in a military standoff that could only escalate into mutually assured destruction, Taiwan’s tiny military poses little to no threat to China and is not actively threatening Beijing’s de jure territorial sovereignty.
Most of all, and regardless of what Chinese nationalists in Taiwan might claim, Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China and the concept of unification is one that is mostly only coveted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and nationalists in China.
Only an insignificant and dwindling minority in Taiwan regard or desire unification as a solution to cross-strait tensions, which are now increasingly visible as the sole product of Zhongnanhai policy.
Moon can talk to Kim Jong-un because most Koreans recognize a common heritage of a shared, organic and substantive identity, culture and history that transcends the unsustainability of crude nationalist indoctrination.
Ma talking to Xi was a demeaning spectacle ultimately undermining Taiwanese democracy and sovereignty since it was predicated on a party-to-party and not a nation-to-nation basis.
It assumed and explicitly reinforced a false notion of Taiwan within a “one China” framework.
It was not an act of peace to ignore a proven domestic consensus supporting Taiwan’s de facto independence, but an act of coercion.
Ma’s meeting with Xi laid the groundwork for nothing more than reinforcing the collaboration of the CCP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in ensuring Taiwanese remain in a birdcage gilded with Chinese economic bribes and political threats.
Finally, although Taiwan formally ended its mobilization against China and any pretense or aspiration of “retaking the mainland” in 1991, China has doubled down with its so-called 2005 “Anti-Secession” Law and has recently ratcheted up military exercises around Taiwan.
Where Kim Jong-un and Moon are seeking de-escalation and demilitarization as an essential component of any peace process that hopes to last, China is doing the exact opposite.
Where Kim Jong-un and Moon want to bring the two Koreas closer together to avoid an unnecessary and costly war, in the process putting aside the concept of unification for later if and when it is at all possible, Xi seeks to bring Taiwan into the fold of China by any means necessary.
There is no mutuality or respect in this process and over it hangs the constant threat of force. Unification, not peace, is Beijing’s goal.
Kim Jong-un does not regard the existence of South Korea as an existential threat and an insult to the territorial integrity of North Korea.
Taiwanese must look with envy at Korea to see how they are resolving their differences with dialogue between equals as actual “compatriots,” who realize that every war must always end with negotiations that put the security and dignity of all people first.
It is a pity that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) calm and careful cross-strait policies are not matched with a similarly mature and reasonable approach from Xi.
Now is the time for the international community to pressure China to abandon its spurious and aggressive claims to Taiwan while the nation is still led by a leader who values democracy and freedom rather than someone who will sue for peace at the expense of those values.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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