The joint declaration by the leaders of North and South Korea on 27 April 2018 has rightly been applauded as a significant breakthrough in the relationship between the two parts of the Korean peninsula that have been in varying states of tension since the armistice that marked the cessation of hostilities in the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Where the relationship goes from here will depend on the actions of others, not parties to the declaration, and whose conduct is outside the control of either Kim Jong-Un or Moon Jae-In, most notably the United States.
To understand what might happen in the future it is necessary to briefly recall the history that brought the two men to this historic point. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained a Japanese colony until the end of World War II. Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung had been a resistance fighter against the Japanese occupation and earned his reputation fighting the Japanese forces that invaded Manchuria in 1937.
The anti-Japanese struggle had begun on 25 April 1932, which is why the DPRK (North Korea) celebrated its 86th anniversary last month, even though the DPRK was not founded until 1948.
The circumstances of that founding are directly linked to the agreement that was signed in Panmunjom last month. It had been the intention of the United States to occupy the whole of Korea following the defeat of the Japanese. The US State Department had drawn up plans to that effect.
The entry of Russian forces from the north prevented the immediate implementation of that plan, but that has never been entirely shelved. The very day that the United States dropped the second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, John McCloy of the US War Department asked the then unknown Dean Rusk (later US Secretary of State from 1961 to 1969 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) to devise a plan for the post war division of Korea. Rusk and a colleague chose the 38th parallel. Three weeks later US troops occupied South Korea and established the first of a series of puppet dictators.
Long before the Korean War officially broke out on 25 June 1950, the South had made multiple guerilla raids into the north, killing thousands of people. There was also repression in the South of persons deemed “leftist.” Historian Bruce Cumings (A Murderous History of Korea www.lrb.co.uk vol 39 No 10 18th May 2017) calls it an “orgy of violence”, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 people before the Korean war began.
Similarly, Korean historian Hun Joon Kim revealed in her groundbreaking book (Korea’s Grievous War University of Pennsylvania Press 2016) that at least 300,000 people in the South were detained or simply disappeared in the first few months after the war began.
The continuing US occupation of Japan also has parallels with Korea. The leader of the counter insurgency against the Korean resistance was Kishii Nobusuke. Despite being a class A war criminal, Nobusuke was never prosecuted. He went on to help found Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and was Prime Minister between 1957 and 1960. His grandson is Japan’s present Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It is one of those quirks of history that the DPRK’s present leader is the grandson of the resistance hero who fought the grandfather of Japan’s present prime minister. It is only one of multiple reasons why there is a lingering mistrust between Japan and both Koreas. Japan attempting to initiate a revival of the so-called Quad (with the US, India and Australia) clearly aimed at “containing” China and excluding Korea is another case in point.
Another important historical point of convergence is found in Japan’s Unit 731, Japan’s biological warfare unit that carried out horrifying experiments on, among others, Chinese and Korean civilians and prisoners of war.
Its leader was General Shiro Ishii, who was also granted amnesty from prosecution by the Americans in exchange for passing over the results of his biological warfare experiments. The US has still not ratified the 1926 Geneva Protocol banning biological warfare.
That Japanese knowledge was utilized by the Americans during the Korean War as part of their genocidal program against the north. Not only was biological warfare waged against China and North Korea (Powell A Hidden Chapter in History Bulletin of Atomic Scientists vol 37 (8) October 1981; Endicott & Hagerman The US and Biological Warfare Indiana University Press, 1998) but there was also total destruction of both civilian and industrial infrastructure. The dams were bombed, causing widespread flooding and the destruction of the rice crop. There was widespread starvation. Approximately one third of the population or 3 million people were killed. More bombs were dropped on North Korea during that war than were dropped on Germany in the whole of the Second World War.
Although the 1953 armistice forbade nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, the Americans introduced them in 1958 and they remained in South Korea until removed during the presidency of George Bush senior (1989-93).
Presidents Kim and Moon would be acutely conscious of this history. They are also aware of what happened in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 and latterly in Syria. All four countries have been destroyed under various false pretexts. Once US troops arrive it is almost impossible to dislodge them even when their presence, as in Syria, is uninvited and unwelcome.
Kim is also undoubtedly conscious of the American attitude to Iran. The JCP0A, negotiated and agreed to by the Americans in 2015, is now on the verge of being repudiated by the Americans. The reason for this is no better than that Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama negotiated it, and it is what the Israelis desperately want. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has just made further claims about a secret Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That the IAEA has repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is irrelevant to the Americans and the Israelis.
In the light of this history it would be exceedingly naïve to trust any agreement that might be made between North Korea and the United States when Kim and Trump have their meeting. The Americans are, as the Russians say, недоговороспособниы (not agreement capable).
The Russians have their own long history of broken American undertakings. It is this history that led to the Russians and the Chinese last year proposing a “double freeze” of nuclear testing and military exercises by the North and the South respectively as a prelude to negotiation. The Americans ignored that and there is no reason to believe that they have had a sincere change of policy. It was only a few months ago that Trump was threatening (contrary to Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter) “Hell and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea.
In a display of chutzpah that only the Americans could achieve, Trump is now claiming credit for the Panmunjom agreement. Bizarrely, he is being spoken of as a contender for the Nobel peace prize.
The two Koreas would be wise to ignore the Americans as they give effect to what Moon called “a precious and valuable agreement.” A little acknowledged component of that agreement was a modernisation of the rail link between Seoul and Sinuiju in North Korea. That latter city sits across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong. It will give South Korea access to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative links through central Asia and on to Russia and Europe. South Korea otherwise has no land link to the rest of the world.
The agreement therefore represents a golden opportunity for both Koreas to give practical effect to the agreement expressed in point 1 (6) “to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.” That was specifically linked to the Sinuiju development.
As Moon said, the “bold decision” by Kim was “a good gift to the world.” One hopes that, contrary to long and bitter experience, the Americans don’t spoil the opportunity yet again.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”