South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27 attracted global attention as they shook hands at the start of a historic summit in the Demilitarized Zone on the 38th parallel.
The Moon-Kim summit was significant because it was the first time that a North Korean leader crossed the border to South Korea since the division of the Korean Peninsula more than 70 years ago.
It was also significant because Moon and Kim issued a joint statement signed in Panmunjom, declaring that they would aim for a peace agreement next year to replace the Korean War Armistice Agreement, thus formally ending the state of war that has existed since the Korean War broke out in 1950.
An exchange of visits between national leaders and a decision to end a state of war are dreams that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been unable to realize to this day.
What inspiration can the two sides of the Strait draw from the two Koreas’ summit, and why can they not achieve what the two Koreas are achieving on the Korean Peninsula?
The difference between the Strait divide and the two Koreas is that South and North Korea identify as one people and hope that the two will be united someday, even though they are ruled by separate governments, but after Taiwan underwent its democratization and localization process in the 1990s, mainstream opinion in Taiwan no longer takes unification into consideration.
Looking even closer, China often points its finger at pro-independence forces as troublemakers and at the US for supporting Taiwan independence.
Furthermore, as Beijing sees it, based on the mutual acknowledgment of the “1992 consensus” during the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the societies on the two sides of the Strait engaged in mutual exchanges, which is something that the two Koreas fail to achieve. There was even the historic summit between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in November 2015.
Today, leaders of the two sides do not meet, and the cross-strait negotiation process between the Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits has also stopped.
In Beijing’s eyes, the deadlock is caused by the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016 and her administration’s refusal to recognize the “1992 consensus,” and also by its push for the cultural independence of Taiwan.
As Beijing sees it, the responsibility lies with Taiwan, which is the one that has been hurting cross-strait relations. This is also the “Beijing understanding” that I discovered after recently visiting some of China’s Taiwan-related agencies and research institutions in Beijing.
As for Taiwan’s response to the Korean summit, Tsai said that as long as there is no political precondition and based on the “principle of reciprocity,” she believes that no president of Taiwan would turn down a meeting with the leader from the other side of the Strait, and that Taiwanese would be glad to see it happen.
This statement is multilayered.
First, Taiwan welcomes a meeting between the leaders of the two sides.
Second, there should be no political preconditions for such a meeting, meaning that the two leaders are unable to meet now because of Beijing’s precondition that Taipei recognize the “1992 consensus.”
Third, a meeting between the two leaders should be a meeting between equals, just as the Korean summit was.
However, Taipei’s understanding of the issue of equality goes further than that. North Korea and South Korea are two nations that recognize one another, and both are members of the UN. During their meeting, Kim addressed Moon as “president.”
Beijing also recognizes the two Koreas, but it does not recognize the Republic of China (ROC). Not only does it not address Taiwan’s leader as “president,” it also does not directly call Taiwanese government agencies or officials by their formal titles.
There is no comparison between the cross-strait situation and the one on the Korean Peninsula.
As for whether Taiwan and China might be able to learn from the two Koreas and move toward a peace agreement, this might be made more difficult because of the situation in Taiwan.
Ma tried to push for a peace accord during his first term, but failed for lack of public support.
It is not difficult to imagine that, based on its insistence on “unifying Taiwan,” Beijing has been more active than Taipei when it comes to trying to end hostilities.
When then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) proposed “Jiang’s eight points” in January 1995, the third point stated that “as a first step, negotiations should be held and an agreement reached on officially ending the state of hostility between the two sides under the principle that there is only ‘one China.’”
This was later reaffirmed when his successor, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), proposed “Hu’s six points” in December 2008.
From another perspective, Taiwan is worried about and even rejects the signing of a cross-strait peace pact because of its assessment that the reason China feels so strongly about the issue is that it controls cross-strait relations.
Once dialogue on a “peace agreement” begins, it would imply that the two sides would engage in political talks. Beijing could use this as an opportunity to gradually force Taipei into its framework.
No wonder Taiwanese mainstream society is so passive about a peace agreement.
Due to growing public opposition, Ma stopped calling for a cross-strait peace pact after his re-election in 2012.
However, the KMT, with the eager backing of its then-chairwoman and presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), in August 2016 added the signing of a peace treaty into its draft political platform, which was approved during the KMT’s 19th National Congress the following month, thus turning it into an official party policy.
Although the Moon-Kim summit and the consensus on signing a peace treaty is no guarantee that the two Koreas will move toward unification, it was a historic step toward peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The two nations have been able to come this far because of their mutual recognition of the other’s status, a shared agreement on the need for a bilateral summit, the exclusion of a “one country” precondition, and their proactive approach toward peace talks and a potential peace treaty.
It is of course also based on the mutual recognition that they are one people and a shared vision of future unification. All these components are missing from the cross-strait relationship.
In addition, Taiwan is worried that China has not withdrawn the guided ballistic missiles it deployed in southeastern coastal areas, which have Taiwan within their range.
However, when then-candidate Tsai gave a speech at National Taipei University on May 4, 2015, she said that Taiwanese society was not yet mentally ready for a cross-strait peace agreement, and that it was not necessary to discuss one at the present stage, which was clearly not an outright rejection of the idea of an agreement.
Given the dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula over the past few years, no one could have predicted three months before the Moon-Kim summit that the two Koreas would so quickly turn its hostility into peaceful friendship.
In an opinion piece in March, I wrote about the possibility of a Tsai-Xi summit. A peaceful history is the result of human wisdom. A summit between the two Koreas and its fruitful results were once seen as a “mission impossible.”
The insights that last month’s summit bring to the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are not limited to the issue of a cross-strait summit, as they should look ahead and seek a peaceful path that will ensure long-term peace and stability.
John Lim is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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