History is being made on the Korean peninsula: But what kind? And who will make it?

This week's historic meeting in Panmunjom was much more than symbolism. Now the pressure is on Washington

Published April 29, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

According to the agenda I have on my desk, the leaders of North and South Korea spent eight and a half hours together on Friday. The two met in the morning at Panmunjom, the village astride the demilitarized zone. Then Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in walked across the DMZ to the southern side — clasping hands, no less. They talked at a table for just short of two hours. In the afternoon they planted a tree together. They sat alone in the woods and spoke for another half an hour. At six o'clock in the evening they signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. The document’s title sits there like a latke, but keep track of it: Those three words lined up like soldiers advise us that Moon and Kim have the making of history in mind.

Ditch any thought you may harbor, readers, that this was some pen-and-paper event in a faraway place and of no consequence to you. It is notoriously difficult to understand the present as history, since by definition we live within it. Give it a try, I urge. Those eight hours at the 38th parallel stand a very good chance now of being among the most important in our lifetimes. There are reasons I think so, and I will explain them shortly.

If certainty of success just drew a lot closer, it remains out front, let us recognize. There are various reasons this is so, too. But even if North and South fail to sign a peace treaty, unify an unnaturally divided nation and hold hands into an era of shared prosperity, the process that formally began Friday will count from here on out. In the worst outcome I can think of, a settled order in Northeast Asia now becomes a “when,” no longer an “if” or an impossibility.

Kim and Moon, so recently cast as monster and feckless dreamer respectively, said some remarkable things in the course of their encounter. Here are a few of them:

  • Kim: “I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation.”
  • Moon: “This is an opportunity that will not come again.”
  • Kim: “I hope we can have open-minded talks on issues of concern and produce good results, not the kind of results we saw in the past that were not implemented and made us start from scratch again.”
  • Moon: “What we can do is try to help the North and the United States reach an agreement, helping them narrow their differences and seeking and presenting practical ideas both sides can accept.”
  • Moon and Kim in a joint statement: “We solemnly declare to our 80 million people and the world that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new era of peace has begun. It is our urgent historic assignment to put an end to this current abnormal state of ceasefire and establish a peace regime.”

Whatever else one may think of these remarks, they are something other than diplomatic boilerplate. There are themes here it is worth singling out. The two leaders understand the historical significance of their undertaking. They have a useful sense of urgency. They are aware of past failures. They know the status quo on the peninsula can no longer hold. They are ready to address practical modalities. They understand that the process they now begin is a responsibility they owe their people.

I left out one thing. Kim and Moon know that American cooperation is essential if what we can now justly call a peace process is to succeed. This is a given at the other end of the Pacific, but it's important that Moon gave the point prominence in Panmunjom. Unless Washington and Pyongyang reach an agreement improving their relations, all they just dropped onto the table will fall to the floor.  

There is a photograph of the welcoming ceremony that I cannot get out of my mind. The New York Times published it here. As Kim and Moon walk down the customary red carpet, it is lined on either side by guards dressed in hanbok, which includes the distinctive hat known as a gat. This is the formal Korean dress dating to the dynastic period. Its presence Friday informs all that Kim and Moon said, in my view. Every Korean alive will have read the semiology effortlessly. This is more, far more, than geopolitics and leftover Cold War hostility. At the bottom of Moon and Kim’s endeavor there is Korean-ness, shared identity, the strength and persistence of which would be difficult to overstate. Anyone who leaves this out of the equation -- and many do -- is unlikely to grasp the momentum we can expect to see in months to come.

We already know of President Moon’s commitment to what is plainly his primary cause. Our questions: What do we make of Kim’s intentions? What do we make of the Trump administration’s?

*  *  *  

A peace treaty, denuclearization of the peninsula, reunification and the integration of the two economies: These are the long-term objectives as stated in the joint declaration. Moon and Kim are now in formal agreement on all of them. The common complaint in the Western press reports is that Kim did not come across with any specifics. This is idiotic, but it is always important to complain that inter–Korean efforts are not working because that is what the clerks in the media are obliged to do. One, the third North–South summit since the Korean War was hardly the occasion for particulars. Two, it is untrue there were none.

The two leaders will now approach China and the U.S. to propose formal agreements ending the Korean War: Kim talks to Beijing, Moon to Washington, we have to assume. Military-to-military talks are now set for next month. North and South will set up a liaison office in Kaesong, the town on the northern side of the border where a joint industrial park operated until Moon’s predecessor, the deposed Park Geun-hye, shut it down four years ago. Customary hostilities on both sides of the DMZ — megaphone blasts, propaganda radio broadcasts, airdrops of leaflets — will cease. The Red Cross can recommence family reunion programs — an on-and-mostly-off effort over the years.

Nah, Kim and Moon got nothing of any substance done.

The biggest step concerned the denuclearization process, in my read. The two sides are now on paper in this respect, too.   

Moon and Kim appear to be in full agreement that denuclearization is, indeed, a process. Moon’s phrase is “action for action.” This means a set schedule of measures, each dependent on completion of the one preceding it, built around reciprocity. This is intended to give both sides confidence in the other with no sacrifice of security interests. Nobody knows how long this process will take, and the joint declaration set no timetable. This is right: Setting the process in motion is what matters for the moment, and the document is clear on this.

“South and North Korea affirmed their shared objective of achieving a nuclear-free Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization,” the declaration reads. “There will be no more war on the Korean peninsula, and a new age of peace has opened.” One would have to be some kind of … monster to see no good in this aspiration. Something interesting follows. Pursuant to the above remark on Korean-ness, the document adds that neither side is any longer willing to function as “a consumable material for U.S. foreign policy.” Translation: The two Koreas will no longer stand as the Pentagon’s best excuse to trap Northeast Asia in a state of permanent hostility.

I have one thing to say about Moon Jae-in at this point. I hope the Nobel Committee in Oslo is following events on the Korean peninsula.

As to Kim, the monster trope seems to be evaporating, one should note. Having long ago ceased caring about the ire of the orthodox, to me the 35-year-old leader seems to have bided his time until he judged his moment had come. That was New Year’s Day, when he first spoke of a turn toward economic development. In the past four months, Kim has proven time and again a grasp of statecraft nobody had him down for. This is especially so since the concessions he made to the U.S. position over the past few weeks — concessions that leave Washington so flustered it is stuck insisting they are not concessions. It makes a good Zen koan: When is a concession not a concession?

I see three factors behind Kim’s evident confidence since the start of the year, two noted previously in this space. One, he is satisfied he has a nuclear deterrent and hence a proper seat at any table where the Americans sit. Two, Moon has done his homework by way of economic incentives. Only some of this is yet visible, but his blueprint for integrating North Korea into a kind of Greater Northeast Asia seems to have been well drawn for its appeal to Kim the aspiring modernizer.

Three, whatever Xi Jinping said to Kim during their surprise summit in Beijing last month, it seems to have included an effective pep talk, a stern warning or both: “Go home, get out there and make a deal” would be a good guess as to what the Chinese president conveyed.  

We now have to see whether Kim can deliver diplomatically to a level that satisfies not only the sympathetic but also the adversarial. There is no way to know how well he will do until he puts the groceries on the table. This said, I am hard pressed to imagine Moon would make the investment he has without a degree of confidence I find encouraging.

Washington remains the hardest read of all. On the one hand, the capital reeks of anxiety as “an opportunity that will not come again” unfolds. I cannot imagine what the “it can’t possibly work” majority will say or do if the prospect of success gains momentum at its current pace.

In the sphere of “saying,” I draw your attention to what I count the worst POS (as we used to term these things) ever to appear on the Times opinion page, and I include Tom Friedman’s oeuvre (which is saying a lot). This was Nicholas Eberstadt’s piece a day before the Kim-Moon summit, headlined “North Korea’s Phony Peace Ploy.” It is filled with mis- and disinformation, ersatz authority, ignorance of Korean realities, nostalgia, caricature and shrill spleen. As pure a case of yellow-peril paranoia I have not seen since reruns of the old Fu Manchu movies. Read this rubbish here, but know: The ground for this kind of thing is shrinking. Eberstadt and his kind will go silent soon enough.

It is the “doing” category that is to be watched. Here we find a widening divide. Trump’s foreign policy minders have been notably quiet in the runup to the Moon-Kim meeting and since. Even John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser and the administration’s hyperventilating hawk on the Korea question, has so far laid low. But one thinks of the old Westerns: “Yeah, too quiet.” A South Korean official who met Bolton pre-summit actually gave him a good review the other day, but this is not to be credited unduly. It remains a critical question whether those around Trump will accept or sabotage Moon’s progress in his dealings with Kim. It would be hard to overstate what is at stake for the Pentagon, the defense industries and the associated security apparatus.

At the moment, the U.S. side holds to the demand that North Korea dismantle its nuclear infrastructure before Washington makes any move at all — no relief from sanctions, no drawing back from its military presence in North Korea’s immediate vicinity, no commitment to discuss normalization of relations. This is an improvement on the U.S. position until recently: Take it all down before we will even start talking. But it is still a repudiation of Moon’s action-for-action strategy. So the suspicion remains: Does the Washington policy apparatus intend to present demands so unreasonable they cannot possibly be met?

Then there is Trump, who eagerly awaits his own summit with Kim and who now stands foursquare in favor of Moon’s demarche. “KOREAN WAR TO END!” the president wrote on Twitter Friday morning. “It looks like it could happen…. The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” Nobody at the other end of the Pacific is going to quibble with the Dealmaker’s claim of credit — a minor matter, as they are wise enough to understand.

What is the fate of the president’s enthusiasm as his meeting with Kim, currently scheduled for late May or early June, draws near? A month is a long time in this case, given what those opposed to the encounter may do. I volunteer no call. But the question just posed is not the only one I have. Two others.

In the minor of the two, I wonder how American liberals, progressives and those of the “Resistance” will take it if the Dealmaker turns out to be the Peacemaker. What if he who can do absolutely nothing right turns out to be the right-est one in Washington, righter than all the Democratic Party’s warmongers? Pretty awkward for those who go through life pasting labels on everything and everybody. I have a call in to Resistance HQ on this but have not yet heard back from the high command.   

Let that sort itself out as it will. Here is the important question, and forget about political stripes as you consider this one.

Are we Americans capable of imagining a future that is different from the past? Do we have any creative brain cells left? Can we think anew? Can we learn a new language? Without meaning to, this is the big kid glove Moon Jae-in throws down. We want to begin a new time, he is telling us. We want Asia to be different. Your position will change, but it was always fated to do so at some point. We see opportunity now, not threat: This is our new vocabulary. Will you come with us? Will you see as we do? This is what Moon is saying and asking — both implicit in everything he just did and said at the 38th parallel.  

I know what I wish the answers to these questions are, but I suspect the true answers are the opposite of those I wish.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at Patreon.com. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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