Averting nuclear war

Hany Ghoraba
Friday 11 May 2018

The historic summit meeting that took place between the leaders of the two Koreas in April may pave the way to an end to the seven-decade conflict on the peninsula

In recent years, the term “historic summit” has been overused by the international media to describe what can be less-than-astonishing meetings between heads of state, meaning that the term has become slightly clichéd.

However, this was not the case of the truly “historic summit” that took place between North Korean President Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on 27 April.

One of the great achievements of this summit was ending the state of war between the two countries, halted only by a ceasefire that has lasted since July 1953.

The summit thus marked the beginning of what could be a new phase of warmer relations between the two states of the Korean Peninsula.

More than at any other time in modern history, the world and not just the two Koreas needs the de-escalation of hostilities that have tainted relations between the two countries and that seemed to be coming to a head over the past two years.

The escalation of the hostilities between the two countries could have ended up in a nuclear war that would have involved the US, China, Japan and possibly also Russia along with the two Koreas.

Luckily for the planet, sanity seems to have prevailed in this conflict, and the result was the historic meeting between the leaders that could pave the way for further rapprochement and cooperation after decades of tensions.

However, these positive winds of change should not deflect us from the fact that the road to a realistic and sustainable peace in the region is still far away because countries that were in a state of war for nearly seven decades can hardly become friends the day they sign a treaty.

Moreover, there are still obstacles facing a sustainable peace, including the opposing political systems of the two countries which differ from absolute autocracy in the case of North Korea to democracy in the case of the South.

It has yet to be observed how the autocratic regime of North Korea will react and how far it will be willing to provide concessions to open the door to change in this iron-curtain state.

However, there have been some positive signs from North Korea, including its vow to shut the nuclear site at Pungge-Ri in May and its adjusting the North Korean time zone to match that of the South.

Moreover, US President Donald Trump is due to meet his North Korean counterpart on 22 May, and this will be another historic feat that the world anticipates could pave the way to ending this seven-decade crisis.

The North Korean leader remains an obstacle on the way to the reunification of the two Koreas, especially as this would mean conceding his absolute power along with his nuclear programme.

Moreover, it is unclear if the North Korean people in general would embrace any form of arrangement that would include concessions to their richer and more advanced Southern counterparts.

The North Korean nation has been fed an enormous amount of media propaganda that has labelled South Korea as an agent of imperialism in the region that seeks to destroy it.

Poverty, oppression and the lack of freedoms and opportunities in the North may be a factor easing what will be a very hard reunification in the future, but one cannot discount other factors such as nationalism and pride in the minds of the North Koreans frustrating the intentions of their Southern neighbours and allies such as the United States.

In modern times, there have been few examples of reunification that have worked, though there was the German case which reunified the Western and Eastern republics of Germany in 1990 after the country’s division after the Second World War.

However, the reunification of Germany was not a walk in the park, and it came at a staggering economic cost that managed to bring up the economic and social standards of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to those of its more successful Western counterpart, the Federal Republic of Germany.

The economic model of South Korea resembles that of the former West Germany, while the communist state of North Korea, disadvantaged compared to its Southern counterpart, resembles that of the former East Germany.

The difference is that the East German secretary of the country’s former Communist Party, Erich Honecker, was forced to step down weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 after losing the support of the former Soviet Union.

Something similar does not seem to have been the case for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is still supported by China and his own military commanders and faces no real threat of revolt such as happened in East Germany in 1989.

Much praise must be given to US and Chinese behind-the-scenes diplomacy, which has risen above the escalating tensions of the current trade dispute between the two countries in order to place security at the top of the agenda.

This paved the way for the peace summit to take place between the two Koreas, which might end the seven-decade conflict once and for all.

The lingering concern that a nuclear conflict could erupt at any moment with the possible involvement of the superpowers motivated the two countries to rise above their differences and bring the two Korean sides to the negotiation table.

A lot of diplomatic efforts must now be exerted to implement the terms of the agreement between the two Koreas.

Despite the unresolved issues between the two Koreas, it is better to have the hope of the reunification of the two states, or even abandon hope of their reunification altogether, in the place of any sort of war, especially the nuclear one that has been looming on the horizon in recent years.

As the early modern Dutch theologian and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus once said, “the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.” He was writing at a time when wars were fought with swords and light firearms.

How much truer his words sound now that wars can be fought with nuclear weapons.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Averting nuclear war 

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