In symbolic terms as well as in concrete outcome – the Korean summit, the first in 11 years, positively surprises. All the more in view of the fact that less than half a year ago, after Pyonyang’s latest missile tests, tensions on the peninsula rose to their peak since the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking, allegedly by the North, of the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010.
The final impact of the two leaders’ stepping across their countries’ border – in correct terms: armistice line – in obvious harmony is impossible to gauge at this point of time. Sceptics point to the last summit, in 2007, between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, at which a similar peace declaration was signed. Just like this time, it called for international talks to replace the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty. However, the honeymoon ended as soon as the conservative Lee Myung-bak, a harsh critic of the North Korean regime, became president in 2008.
Why might the 2018 summit turn out differently? One reason could be found in the geopolitical changes during the last decade, effectively re-shaping the distribution of power along the Pacific rim. A major factor is the rapprochement between Russia and China, described by some experts as a loose, geostrategical entente to contain US influence in the area. The non-Western world is in the ascendancy, its economies, for the first time in almost 200 years, again account for more than half of the global output. Russia and China are its main pillars, following very different strategies. Russia does not shy away from showing force, while China is by far the more potent power in terms of economy.
The politicians in Beijing and Moscow understand that a stable status quo on the Korean peninsula – from their point of view – is the preferable solution. The emphasis is on stable. Thus, the immediate requirements are to initiate a sustained peace process between the two Koreas and economic reform in the North. Instead of the feared Armageddon between capitalism and communism, i.e., Donald Trump’s fire and fury, the world may witness a much different Asian approach to conflict solution.
The fear of a military showdown is also why in the South, a stabilized two-Koreas solution will meet with only limited opposition. The South Koreans, particularly the younger generation, have grown used to the division of their nation – as much as the West Germans had been prior to 1989. It was the East Germans, revolting against their socialist government, who incidentally triggered the unification process.
Thus it may well be that Pyongyang adopts the Chinese post-Deng economic reform strategy distinctly to avoid the German scenario of 1989/90. A certain new vector in the North’s economic policy is already apparent: the incremental evolving of an urban middle class, first signs of consumerism.
The prerequisite for any such change of vector is a degree of US acquiescence. It would mean that the USA, if only tacitly, accept the permanence of two Koreas with two very much different political systems, one a Western-style democracy, the other an Asian dictatorship. To secure that acquiescence in permanence, the possession of a nuclear deterrent is seen as reinsurance by the Northern leadership.
Whether things will turn out this way is far too early to say. In any case, the described scenario is among the likely ones. Of course, a bellicose attempt to rid the world of a soaring wound can’t be ruled out either. At least not before the meeting of Kim and Trump. The cards are on the table.