Since 1945, the Korean peninsula has been split almost across the middle at the 38th parallel. There have been skirmishes, battles, an all out war, assassination attempts, assassinations, murders, kidnappings, tunneling, diplomatic negotiations, agreements, broken agreements, a train from the South to the North, a train that no longer runs, the hope of reconciliation, the dashed hopes of reconciliation, and this list could go on and on almost ad infinitum. For me, who has spent several years studying the past and present situation in Korea, the hopes of a peace deal that would end the 65-year-old armistice has seemed only possible with the removal of the Kim Dynasty.
So when I woke up to the news this past Friday morning regarding the progress of the Korean talks, I would have been floored had I not still been in bed. When I watched Kim Jung Un take the step over to the south side of the parallel, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was the latest lone master of the Hermit Kingdom stepping outside of his country to one of the last places I figured he would step.
When Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, shook Kim’s hand, with Kim readily accepting it, and then gesturing him to come over the ankle-high barrier, to which Kim obliged, it seemed as both men were stating to each other that there was nothing to fear (despite the contrary being true). That statement became even more clear when Kim pulled Moon over to the north side.
WHAT HISTORY TEACHES US ABOUT THE KOREAS
Korea became a unified nation in 668 (then known as Silla), eventually housing only two 500-year dynasties (Koryo and Joseon), exemplifying the peace and stability of the country. It was a strong nation that supported itself and received help from the Chinese by more or less being a tributary state (a quid pro quo of sorts).
Until the end of the 19th century, Korea had always been unified and had always known peace, with only a few battles and wars sprinkled in over the 1,200-year period. Then the Japanese colonized Korea in the early 20th century. Then the Japanese left after their defeat in World War II. Immediately after their exit, Russia and America split the country in two (one as a communist state and one as a democratic state). Five years later, the two went to war (1950-1953), leaving horrible devastation to both sides, especially within their collective civilian population. The ideologies of the these two have been at “war” ever since.
The promise of peace typically results in a refusal to come to the table (the North) or results in flipping the table over completely (the North). It has led the world to typify the result of any niceties uttered or any promises suggested. But this is because every other time has been conducted in the same manners with South Korea or China taking the lead, but the North making the untenable demands.
WHY THIS TIME MAY BE DIFFERENT
This time, however, is evidently different. North Korea’s leader/demigod, Kim Jong Un, is personally involved, and not just in the process, but in the talks themselves. His very presence turns the history of the past 73 years on its head. It has never been done before. And even if nothing comes of these talks in the ways of peace agreements, something of great magnitude has still taken place: North Korea’s leader has come out from behind the safety and security (or insecurity) of his palace walls to negotiate and to speak directly to the South Korean president.
When Moon Jae-in mentions establishing “permanent and solid peace”, we know it to be an echo of past presidents of the South. But when the leader of the North and descendant of the Kim Dynasty sits down at the peace talks table, it is an utterance we have never heard before.
In the likely event that North Korea decides against reunification or even nuclear proliferation, Kim stepping into the spotlight for more than just sending missiles into the air tells us that the Hermit Kingdom may be inching out of its shell to possibly establish civil relationships with other countries.
The possibility of ending the armistice and establishing “solid and permanent peace” may be a hope against hope, but there is a tangible reason for this hope, and that in and of itself is very promising.