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Dramatic Developments on Korean Peninsula in 2018

2018-12-27

© YONHAP News

This year, so many things happened on the Korean Peninsula. Early this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an unexpected announcement that his country would participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. After that, a string of high-profile talks took place, such as three inter-Korean summits, three North Korea-China summits and one North Korea-U.S. summit.


In the process, South and North Korea discussed major security issues like nuclear weapons and ways to build military trust, and hosted bilateral exchanges as well. The two sides actually made progress in the discussions, which I think greatly significant.


As indicated by Shin Beom-chul at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, the Korean Peninsula has been enveloped in a wave of new changes this year. The three inter-Korean summits and the North Korea-U.S. summit marked a breakthrough towards a establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.


Mr. Shin says that the PyeongChang Winter Games was the first step in the process.


The Winter Olympics in South Korea certainly provided fresh impetus for a diplomatic change this year. President Moon Jae-in announced his peace initiative in Berlin in July 2017 and officially invited North Korea to the Olympics in December the same year. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accepted the invitation through his New Year’s speech early this year. So, it’s no exaggeration to say that the PyeongChang Olympics paved the way for dialogue. 


On the occasion of the Olympics, key North Korean officials, including Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, visited South Korea and engaged in behind-the-scenes talks to facilitate an inter-Korean summit to be held in April. In this sense, the PyeongChang Olympics played a big role


Until late last year, tension was escalating in the region in the wake of repeated North Korean provocations, including its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. U.S. President Donald Trump added fuel to the fire, threatening to “totally destroy North Korea.” 


But things took a dramatic turn early this year. After Kim Jong-un expressed willingness to send a North Korean team to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in his New Year’s speech, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed on performances of a North Korean art troupe in the South and the formation of a unified women’s ice hockey team for the Olympics. 


At the opening ceremony on February 9, South and North Korea entered the stadium together, garnering much attention from around the world. Additionally, Kim Jong-un’s sister and vice director of North Korea’s Workers’ Party Kim Yo-jong attended the opening ceremony. She delivered a personal letter from the North Korean leader to President Moon as well as a verbal commitment from Kim to meet the South Korean president in the near future. 


On March 5, a South Korean delegation visited Pyongyang to establish the groundwork for a summit between Moon and Kim. In April, a group of South Korean artists performed in Pyongyang following an earlier performance of North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra in the South ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics.


In Pyongyang on April 1 and 3, South Korean musicians held a concert titled “Spring is Coming” to wish for inter-Korean peace and cooperation. Many believe the show contributed to improving inter-Korean relations. Let’s hear from commentator Choi Young-il. 


A number of top South Korean singers entertained Pyongyang residents. Some of the popular artists, including Yoon Do-hyun and Cho Yong-pil, had performed in North Korea in the early 2000s. In a nice surprise, a South Korean girl group called Red Velvet sang its hit song “Red Flavor” on stage. Like many older South Koreans, those in the North struggled to find the right reaction to their performance. However, the concert likely proved to people on both sides of the border that bilateral exchanges should continue. 


The show brought the two Koreas together, raising hope for a genuine new beginning on their divided peninsula. On April 27, the historic summit between Moon and Kim took place. Here again is Mr. Choi.


The leaders of the two Koreas met at the Military Demarcation Line in Panmunjom. When Kim walked across the line to the South, where Moon was waiting, Moon told Kim, “When would it be possible for me to set foot on North Korean soil?” Then Kim said, “How about now?” So, at Kim’s suggestion, Moon briefly made a crossing into the North and both leaders then stepped over the concrete block back to the southern side. The symbolic scene was a stark reminder that a single line has divided the Korean Peninsula for seven decades. 


Another eye-catching scene was that the two leaders took a leisurely stroll on a nature bridge and held an informal yet serious conversation without their entourage. The scene created a sensation both at home and abroad


The first meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas in Panmunjom, the symbol of war and division, was certainly a memorable scene that will be remembered throughout history. The two leaders’ surprise crossing of the border together to the northern side of Panmunjom changed the whole atmosphere of the place, at least for a time. 


After their private 30-minute conversation Moon and Kim jointly announced the Panmunjom Declaration at 6 p.m. 


The declaration calling for complete denuclearization and an improvement in South-North relations marked a new milestone in cross-border ties. Let’s hear again from Mr. Shin. 


I’d say that the Panmunjom Declaration presented a basic direction for establishing sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula. It calls for a better inter-Korean relationship, the establishment of a peace regime and denuclearization—the three elements necessary to settle permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula in a practical way


It was the first time that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un committed to denuclearization in a written document. As Kim expressed his commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, expectations were high for summit between North Korea and the U.S. 


But there were some twists and turns along the way. After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang after the April inter-Korean summit and returned home with three American detainees, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan openly questioned whether the North Korea-U.S. summit take place.


Kim apparently took issue with ongoing military drills being carried out by South Korea and the U.S. President Trump responded by abruptly cancelling the summit in an open letter to Kim Jong-un on May 24.


With U.S.-North Korea relations seemingly deteriorating, the leaders of Seoul and Pyongyang held a second meeting on May 26. Thanks to President Moon’s mediating efforts, the summit was revived and scheduled for Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12. 


The unprecedented summit between North Korea and the U.S. drew much attention as it was expected to ease their decades-long confrontation dating back to the Korean War. Trump and Kim put on an impressive show at the summit, although their meeting was rather short. The two men reportedly had a frank discussion and took a walk together. They adopted a four-point joint statement, in which Kim agreed on complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula while Trump committed security guarantees for North Korea. 

The two sides also committed themselves to establishing new bilateral relations and agreed to recover the remains of soldiers taken prisoner or missing during the Korean War, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified. If the two countries manage to move toward the next stage and agree on specific denuclearization measures, the summit will be remembered as all the more significant. 


Leaders of North Korea and the U.S. held a face-to-face meeting for the first time in history. Their handshake gave hope to those in Korean and around the world that peace was possible on the Korean peninsula. 


Kim and Trump had a one-on-one meeting and an extended summit attended by their aides in the morning. They held a conversation while walking at the Capella Hotel. In the afternoon, they announced a joint statement. 


The two leaders took an historic step toward the denuclearization of North Korea and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. 

In August, an emotional event was held at Mt. Geumgang in North Korea. 


A reunion of separated families took place from August 20 to 26. Their heartbreaking stories and tearful embraces pulled the heartstrings of many.


Family members divided by the Korean War included an old mother who was finally reunited with her two daughters after over 70 years, and a father who didn’t even know he had a daughter on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ until he was 89 years old. They stroked each other’s faces with wrinkly hands and shed tears of joy and sorrow. Their short reunions and long separation once again reminded people of the tragic legacy of war. Mr. Choi shares his insight. 


The first inter-Korean family reunions in nearly two years were held in August. Sadly, many of the separated family members have already passed away. Those who are still alive should be allowed to meet their long-lost family again before they die. 


If only one particular place to meet is allowed, like Mt. Geumgang, it will take longer to facilitate. So several venues should be permitted, as long as the participant’s health is okay, and the selection process should be less strict. This is an urgent problem


For South Korea, the separated family issue wasn’t the only task to contend with. North Korea and the U.S. paved the way for dialogue with a summit between Trump and Kim, but relations between the two countries have since made little progress. 


The U.S. insists that North Korea implement more pragmatic denuclearization measures. The North, on the other hand, argues that returning American troops killed in the North during the Korean War and its partial dismantlement of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station are sufficient to invite corresponding concessions by the U.S.


In late August, Trump cancelled a planned visit to North Korea by Mike Pompeo. Observing that negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang were grinding to a halt, President Moon, who considered himself a mediator between the two, moved to once again break the deadlock. A third summit between Moon and Kim was held for three days starting September 18, this time in Pyongyang. Let’s hear again from Mr. Shin.


The 2000 inter-Korean summit was held under the Kim Dae-jung government in South Korea, and the 2007 summit occurred during the years of former President Roh Moo-hyun. 

It was proving rather difficult for the agreement reached at summits to make practical progress. But Moon and Kim held three summit meetings this year alone, indicating that leaders of the two sides can meet at any time and resolve pending issues. I think this is the most significant takeaway.


The summit agreement in Pyongyang upgraded and fleshed out the Panmunjom Declaration in April. In September, the two Koreas reached a military agreement to take practical measures to build peace on the peninsula.  Another impressive event was President Moon’s speech before the North Korean people at a giant stadium. It was indeed a forward-looking change in North Korea’s attitude.


The September inter-Korean summit saw the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration, in which North Korea agreed to permanently dismantle its missile engine test facility in Dongchang-ri and to take more specific denuclearization measures. The two sides also signed a military agreement calling for a peaceful resolution mechanism of bilateral issues without resorting to kinetic options. 


On September 19, President Moon delivered a speech in front of some 150-thousand Pyongyang residents who gathered at the Rungrado May Day Stadium. He became the first South Korean leader to make a speech to a mass North Korean audience. During his speech, Moon said that there would be no more war on the Korean Peninsula. 


The U.S. responded quickly to the September inter-Korean summit. Trump hailed it as a sign of tremendous progress in efforts to get North Korea to denuclearize, while Pompeo said that the U.S. is prepared to engage in talks with the North. The South-North summit was believed to provide new momentum for stalled negotiations between the North and the U.S. 


Moon and Kim climbed Mt. Baekdu together on September 20th, the last day of Moon’s trip to the North, and pledged to write a new inter-Korean history. 

The summit agreement bore fruit in the form of the withdrawal of guard posts at the DMZ and cross-border railways and roads project. Mr. Choi explains.


It is definitely notable that South and North Korea removed eleven guard posts on each side of the DMZ. Initially, they agree to each destroy 10 guard posts while retaining one on each side for record keeping. North Korea destroyed the 10 guard posts using explosives, while the South tore down its posts using excavators. Later, 11 seven-member teams verified that the guard posts were completely disabled. The two Koreas will likely continue to reduce military tension in the DMZ.


In regards to the railway project, South and North Korea finished their joint inspections of railroads in the North. The onsite surveys covered 1,200 kilometers of rail tracks along the 400-kilometer western Gyeongui Line and the 800-kilometer eastern Donghae Line. The western line will be connected to a railway in China, while the eastern line will be linked to a railway in Russia


Following the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, South and North Korea removed landmines from the area where they plan to jointly excavate Korean War remains and withdrew guard posts from the DMZ on a trial basis. They also cleared a path across the DMZ in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, for the first time since Korea was divided. 


Meanwhile, the two Koreas carried out joint inspections of railways in North Korea for 18 days starting November 30 to check structures like railway stations, bridges and tunnels. They held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony on December 26 for the project. 


Now that the two sides have successfully broken ground for the inter-Korean railway project before the year’s end, as agreed upon at the Panmunjom Declaration and the Pyongyang Declaration, the inter-Korean peace process is well under way. Mr. Shin says that 2019 will be a watershed year in regional diplomacy. 


Next year may determine whether sustainable peace will be built on the Korean Peninsula or inter-Korean relations will regress once more. A fierce competition between the U.S. and China is feared to affect Korean Peninsula issues negatively. The U.S. is considering humanitarian aid for North Korea to keep dialogue momentum alive, and North Korea may accept it as a positive signal. 


In the next stage, North Korea could declare and verify its nuclear facilities, including the one in Yongbyon, and the U.S. may take reciprocal measures by declaring an official end to the Korean War or ease sanctions on North Korea step by step. Next year, it is hoped that two countries will move toward complete denuclearization. 


The Korean Peninsula set out on a journey towards peace in 2018. We’ll wait and see whether this year’s positive change will lead to complete denuclearization in the coming year.

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