Friday, April 27, 2018

peace on the peninsula?

Around 6:20PM, some of us started getting the news that the two Koreas are preparing to sign a peace treaty—not an armistice, not a cease-fire, but a bona fide peace treaty signifying the end of a state of war that has existed since 1950. If so, this is revolutionary news, but (1) none of us knows exactly what the peace treaty implies and entails, and (2) we definitely need to wait and see how real any of this is. I looked out the office's window and didn't see orgies in the streets, so I suspect the South Korean population as a whole is just as circumspect as I am.

More here:

The leaders of North Korea and South Korea have vowed to finally end the Korean conflict, which has been merely dormant since the two sides ended outright war with an armistice 65 years ago.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the border into the south side of the demilitarized zone on Friday morning for a historic meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In the afternoon, local time, the two issued a joint statement in which they said they would hold talks on establishing a formal peace treaty.

The countries will work towards ridding the peninsula of nuclear weapons, and the border area will become a “peace zone,” the leaders said.

“We hope we will not repeat our mistake of the past,” said Kim. “I hope this will be an opportunity for the two Korean peoples to move freely from North to South. We need to take responsibility for our own history.”

I tend to see unification as a separate question. Assuming reunification under a Southern banner, there is much in North Korea that would need to be undone—deep, systemic problems that would need to be resolved. In today's North Korea, for example, citizens aren't permitted to move from town to town without filling out special forms that allow the government to track their movements. Free speech is nonexistent, and all citizens are members of an enormous cult of personality that venerates the Kim family as divine beings. As with East Germany, North Korean workers have little actual work ethic; the work they do is based more on fear (fear of punishment, fear of starvation, etc.) than on an earnest desire to progress in life. Reunification, even of the nonviolent sort, would also be an economic nightmare for the South: the peninsula as a whole would be taking several steps back, for decades, before the newly reunited country could once again stride forward as a major economic, technological, and military power. At the same time, there are large South Korean companies that are waiting to pounce on the opportunity to invade and explore the North Korean market, and subsuming North Korea into South Korea would mean gaining access to precious rare-earth minerals that are needed for computers, cell phones, and other technologies. Eventually, if Southern-style reunification did occur, the older generations would die out, leaving young, hungry, future-oriented generations ready to rebuild the new nation.

But I doubt these are issues that concern the current leadership of both the North and the South. Right now, it's a matter of baby steps: a peace treaty first, possible denuclearization next, and perhaps the opening of trade routes and markets that might eventually benefit North Korean citizens. My worry is that, with President Moon Jae-in at the helm, South Korea will end up once again giving away the store while receiving nothing significant in return. This could end up being Kim Dae Jung's Hyundai scandal writ large (President Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize, but it was discovered that he had surreptitiously slipped half a billion dollars, via Hyundai, to North Korea to forward his "Sunshine Policy"). It's possible that the specter of Donald Trump might prompt North Korea to behave better at the negotiating table, but as I discussed earlier, there's a chance that Trump himself might get played. Suffice it to say that I have my doubts about there being any peace treaty. Many doubts.

We'll see, though: it could be that this truly is the beginning of a new, peaceful era on the Korean peninsula. If it is, if the guns are finally being lowered, and the Mexican standoff has come to an end, then I only wish my mother could have seen this.

ADDENDUM: Styx is all sunny optimism. See below:


Charles said...

I think a lot of people forget just how positive and optimistic the mood was at the last summit, with Kim Jong-il. Everyone thought that was the beginning of the end (of the war, that is), too.

That being said, times are different now. Who knows?

King Baeksu said...

North Korean workers have little actual work ethic; the work they do is based more on fear (fear of punishment, fear of starvation, etc.) than on an earnest desire to progress in life.

Untrue. Significant marketization has been unleashed under Kim Jong-un's rule. During my recent trips there, money fever was everywhere in the air.

The genie is out of the bottle and there's no turning back.

Kevin Kim said...


Color me skeptical. I seriously doubt the North has become a capitalist paradise in any significant measure. The burgeoning of markets above the DMZ is fairly old news, yes, but I can't see this phenomenon as anything more than happening in patches here and there, not as a wave swamping the nation. To put it another way: there might be clumps and rhizomes of marketization happening, but at a guess, nothing lush and verdant and disruptive of the larger, centrally planned paradigm.

That said, you've got me curious since you've been up north and I haven't: could you tell me more about what you saw in North Korea re: marketization? How much were you able to divine before the tour minders clamped down (assuming they did clamp down)? Do you see marketization turning into a seriously erosive force that might produce, say, a cascade failure (or "creative destruction," rather) in the Kimist economy?

If you've written about this on your blog, I'd be interested in reading your thoughts. I'm a skeptic about the significance of marketization, but I'm open to being convinced otherwise.