The Korean Peninsula is divided into two nations, the Republic of Korea (hereinafter "South Korea"), which was established in the south after the Korean War in 1950, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (hereinafter "North Korea"). The relationship between the two countries suffers from ideological conflicts due to this division—conflicts regarding political colors. The relationship is frequently disrupted by South Korea, North Korea, and the leaders of adjacent countries. Whenever the leaders of South Korea and North Korea change, diverse incidents occur, moods change, and tension increases. As time goes by, the relationship between the two nations keeps changing, regularly going through good and bad times.
The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun Administrations
Former President Kim Dae-jung pursued a policy of reconciliation and exchange, the so-called "sunshine policy" toward North Korea. The official name began with the three concepts of peace, reconciliation, and cooperation. The Roh Moo-hyun government was successful in maintaining those themes and developed a positive relationship with North Korea. During this period, cooperation between North and South Korea increased, such as operating tours to Mount Kumgang, developing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and holding the inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong-il, the then-leader of North Korea.
The Lee Myung-bak & Park Geun-hye Administrations
The relationship between North and South Korea was chaotic during this time. There were many incidents resulting in serious conflict between the two nations, such as the killing of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang, the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. Moreover, during the Park Geun-hye administration, the Gaesong Industrial Complex was closed down. Tension between South Korea and North Korea frequently mounted before and after the inauguration of Kim Jong-un, after Kim Jong-il’s death, and during his attempt to consolidate power.
The Moon Jae-in administration
Some people believe President Moon Jae-in's government will lead a revival of the sunshine policy. President Moon Jae-in has already served his first year as a president. During this period, inter-Korean relations have improved, with the participation of the inter-Korean team and the visit of North Korean officials during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Cultural exchanges have also resumed. Most importantly, the government, led by president Moon Jae-in, succeeded in holding an inter-Korean summit on April 27. President Moon met Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, and announced the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. Then on May 26, a second summit was held to confirm North Korea's willingness to denuclearize.
The Development Process of the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit
As the 2018 inter-Korean Summit was held 11 years after the previous one, many milestones were reached regarding the establishment of a peaceful solution for the Korean Peninsula. Since his first suggestion at the Muju WTF World Taekwondo Championship congratulatory ceremony, President Moon Jae-in continually proposed that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics should be held as a peaceful Olympics thanks to efforts of both South Korea and North Korea. On January 1, 2018, Kim Jong-un announced North Korea's willingness to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and on the same day, a Presidential Office spokesperson expressed South Korea's positive stance toward the decision. On January 2, the Minister of Unification proposed holding an inter-Korean summit, and on January 5, North Korea responded to the proposal. On January 20, the IOC finally approved of North Korea‘s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. On the same day that the inter-Korean team marched together at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea, visited South Korea as the head of a high-level delegation on February 9. During an interview with President Moon Jae-in on February 10, a special envoy, Kim Yo-jong, sent a letter inviting President Moon to visit North Korea. On February 25, Kim Young-cheol, the vice chairman of the North Korean Party, and a high-level delegation expressed their intention for a conference with the United States to be organized. On March 6, a special envoy for North Korea announced that the 2018 inter-Korean Summit would take place in Panmunjeom at the end of April. On March 9, Chung Eui-yong, the head of South Korea’s National Security Office, conveyed President Trump's message that he intended to hold the 2018 DPRK-United States Summit (North Korea-United States of America Summit) in May. A South Korean art troupe and a taekwondo demonstration team staged performances in Pyongyang from April 1 to April 3. After several inter-Korean business talks, a direct telephone line was opened between the inter-Korean leaders, and a test call was made on April 20.
A week later, on April 27, the 2018 inter-Korean Summit took place at the House of Peace, located in the southern area of Panmunjeom. At the summit, the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula was adopted. There were two conferences, and the two leaders walked along a footbridge and by a commemorative tree. They also enjoyed a banquet accompanied by the First Ladies. The president announced efforts to follow-up on the Panmunjeom Declaration on April 30 during an aide assembly meeting. On the same day, North Korea announced that clocks would be moved forward 30 minutes in order to match the South's time zone. On May 1, the South Korean army withdrew its loudspeakers from the DMZ, and on May 12, North Korea also announced its plan to abolish the nuclear test site Punggye-ri between May 23 and 25. On May 15, North Korea proposed to hold an inter-Korean high-level conference on May 16, but immediately on the next day, North Korea informed the South of an indefinite postponement of the conference due to ROK-US Alliance ACT (Air Combat Training) Max-Thunder. On May 22, the ROK-US Summit was held, and two days later, on May 24, President Trump announced the cancellation of the 2018 DPRK-United States Summit through an open letter addressed to Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, President Moon Jae-in said that he expected the hearts of the parties concerned to remain unchanged and that this problem would be solved through direct dialogue between them. Taking the rough with the smooth, on May 25, Kim Jong-un proposed a meeting between the inter-Korean leaders, and on May 26, 2018, a second inter-Korean summit was held in Tongil-gak, in the northern side of Panmunjeom. On May 27, by the time the results of the second summit were announced, President Trump had reorganized the 2018 DPRK-United States Summit.
Through the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, the inter-Korean leaders revealed a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula. The main contents of the declaration concerned comprehensive improvements and development, joint efforts to ease military tensions and reduce the risk of war, and active cooperation to establish a lasting peace. The Panmunjeom Declaration is significant in that it confirms the common goals of achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization. Part of the content of the declaration has already been fulfilled. As mentioned earlier, before the summit, both the South and North Korean armies suspended loudspeaker broadcasting toward each other. This suspension was based on the agreement between the two leaders who decided to abolish means of hostile action. Removal of the loudspeakers was finished on May 4. A standardized time zone across the whole of the Korean Peninsula, promised by Kim at the summit, was established on May 5. The promise that was made during the summit to close the nuclear test site in May and publicly announce the closure to the international community was realized on May 24. Immediately after the summit, the government explained the results of the summit in detail, and the international community, including the United States, revealed an intention to cooperate. As a way to overcome the confrontation and conflict between the North and the South, the second inter-Korean summit, which took place immediately and abruptly, was as meaningful as the historical summit held in April.
Overall Analysis & Prospects
After the establishment of the new government in 2017, President Moon Jae-in urged North Korea to continue dialogue through the Berlin initiative. However, North Korea did not cease provocations, launching various missiles and conducting a sixth nuclear test. As a result, the situation on the peninsula became very unstable, and the Cold War atmosphere on the Korean peninsula continued.
However, on the first day of 2018, the atmosphere began to improve due to Kim Jong-un's announcement that he would dispatch a representative team to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Since then, North and South Korea have dispatched special envoys to each other and decided to hold the inter-Korean Summit in April 2018.
As a result, at the inter-Korean summit, the two leaders on the Korean Peninsula signed the Panmunjom Declaration to conclude the Korean War and complete denuclearization, thereby taking the opportunity to turn the Cold War atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula into a peaceful atmosphere. Through this meeting, we could confirm our commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea, which was the main point of the 2018 DPRK–USA Summit. Also, the two countries promised to promote inter-Korean exchanges and discussed the possibility of economic cooperation by vowing to link the Donghae and Gyeongui railway lines.
Additionally, in June, North Korea and the US held the DPRK–USA Summit for the first time since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. During the DPRK–USA Summit, the two countries pledged to reduce the tension that has been maintained since the Korean War, creating a peaceful atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. Also, referring to the Panmunjom Declaration, they reaffirmed the alleviation of military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and their commitment to end the Korean War, and concrete ways to denuclearize North Korea were suggested.
Since the Moon Jae-in government came into power in South Korea in 2017, the relationship between South and North Korea has reached a new phase. North Korea, which provoked South Korea with its nuclear tests and missile launches throughout 2017, has shown its commitment to improving inter-Korean relations in 2018. In addition, North Korea illustrated the possibility of change through the inter-Korean summit and the 2018 DPRK–USA Summit.
Through the Panmunjom Declaration and the DPRK–USA Summit in Singapore, South Korea, North Korea, and the United States have offered a way to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, the only remaining Cold War zone. Although complete denuclearization of North Korea has not been realized yet, and there is criticism that North Korea may change its attitude, if the three countries continue to communicate and cooperate, it may be a great opportunity to enhance the possibility to end the longstanding conflict.
Minseong Kim, Jooeun Kwon firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
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