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Diplomacy in Korea and the Hope It Inspires

Photo by Giuseppe Milo | CC BY 2.0

History will be made this week with the summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. With a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump looming in four to six weeks or so, it’s tempting to look past this first summit, but that would be a mistake. This inter-Korean summit could well be the more important of the two. Should North and South Korea continue to make solid progress toward peace and reconciliation, and there is every reason to think they will, agreements made at this first summit will set the stage for subsequent negotiations, including the Trump-Kim summit.

Recent media reports are full of speculation about U.S., Chinese and Japanese interests and influences over the North-South Korea talks. This is understandable, but the real story here is about Koreans making peace.

It’s remarkable how far we’ve come since just the beginning of the year, when the opening created by the Olympic Truce greased the wheels for smart diplomacy by the governments of both South and North Korea, leading to an astonishing thaw in relations.

Even before the two summits begin, North Korea has agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons and missile tests, agreed to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and voiced openness to the continued presence of 28,000 American troops in South Korea. Just last week, North and South Korea discussed signing a peace treaty to replace the supposedly temporary armistice in place since 1953 (meaning a state of war still technically exists between the North and the South and the U.S.). Also, remarkable in terms of symbolic and practical meaning, they discussed  returning the border to a more normal state. The “Demilitarized Zone” is of course a misnomer, perhaps even ironic at this point, as it is the most heavily militarized patch of land on Earth.

All of this incredible progress has occurred despite the North’s understandable loathing of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, the largest in the world, which are currently in progress. Beyond that, no sanctions on North Korea have yet been lifted, and neither the inter-Korean summit nor the U.S.-North Korean summit meetings have happened yet.

North Korea has pivoted to an emphasis on economic development over further military investment, as announced by Kim on New Year’s Day and in more recent statements. The United States should honor the remarkable steps North Korea has taken to demonstrate it is operating in good faith with a reciprocal commitment for peace. Ultimately, U.S. goals should include the signing of a peace treaty, the lifting of economic sanctions against North Korea, and the integration of North Korea into a regional and world economy, which is key to long-term peace and stability on the Peninsula.

While recent diplomatic progress has inspired hope for peace around the world, few feel the full weight of that hope more than Koreans. South Koreans overwhelmingly support a peace agreement to end Korean War, 79% according to the latest poll.

For many Korean and Korean-American family members divided by Korean War, these summits offer the hope of being reunited with their families—the last hope for some. According to the latest government report, 131,447 South Koreans are registered as separated families since 1988. Over 73,611 have passed away since 1988 when the registration opened, and a quarter of those alive are over 90 years old.

In the U.S., Members of Congress to show their support for diplomacy and a successful summit with public statements, and by co-sponsoring the “No Unconstitutional First Strike on Korea Act,” S. 2016 sponsored by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and H.R. 4837  sponsored by Representative Ro Khanna. It’s time we all gave peace on the Korean Peninsula a real chance.

Dr. Simone Chun serves on the Steering Committee of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea. Kevin Martin is President of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund, and also convenes the Korea Peace Network. www.peaceaction.org

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