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Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in met each other at the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas. (Getty Images)
Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in met each other at the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas. (Getty Images)

PoliticsApril 28, 2018

Could one handshake herald peace at last for Korea?

Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in met each other at the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas. (Getty Images)
Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in met each other at the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas. (Getty Images)

Last night North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met for the first time, pledging a new era of friendship between the two countries. In today’s Cheat Sheet: is peace finally about to come for the people of Korea? 

What’s all this about then?

The leaders of North and South Korea have met, agreed to work towards ending a war that has lasted decades, and signed an agreement to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. To put it bluntly, it’s a pretty big deal.

Decades? My grandpappy fought in Korea. Didn’t it all end there? 

Actually, no. There was never true peace between the Koreas. There was a shooting war in the 50s, in which the USA and allies backed South Korea, and China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea. But it didn’t really end in any meaningful sense; both sides just realised they couldn’t win without years more fighting, and probably millions more deaths, and the risk of nuclear war breaking out. So instead of a peace treaty, there was an armistice, Korea was divided, and they’ve had guns pointed at each other ever since. During the years since there have been constant threats, raids, and flashpoints, which have kept tensions high.

The border between the two countries is ironically known as the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ, which is funny because it’s pretty much only soldiers, barbed wire and landmines. Though the landmines have also had the benefit of allowing wildlife to thrive, so long as the animals are small and light enough that they don’t trip landmines when they step on them.

Yeah, wasn’t there going to be a nuclear war like, six months ago?

There was going to be, yes. Or at least, that was the fear in January when US President Donald Trump was ranting at the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on Twitter that he “had a bigger button on his desk,” referring to the one that fires the nukes. Which may or may not be strictly speaking true regarding the button, but is certainly true in terms of the capability and sentiment.

Is it possible that Trump’s aggressive rudeness might have actually done some good?

What a world. Many analysts have noted that the aim of North Korea’s nuclear programme isn’t so that they can take over the world, or even conquer South Korea. It’s about survival and deterrence. They’ve also got truckloads of conventional artillery pointed directly at South Korean capital Seoul, with the understanding they’ll blast it off the face of the earth if hostilities start again. That’s partly why previous North Korean statements sound so over the top – they need the rest of the world to know that if they go down, they’re taking as many people with them as they can. And in Trump, the US have a president who outwardly doesn’t seem to give a shit if lots of people die, which seriously weakens the North Korean position.

The really important player in all of this though is China. Behind the scenes, it is understood they’ve been keeping a lid on things, and for good reason. They’re a rapidly rising world power, and a war on the Korean Peninsula would be disastrous. Potentially millions of North Koreans would have to flee over the border into China as refugees, they would lose a buffer state against American military bases in South Korea and Japan, and there would be every chance another Korean war could escalate again. None of that is in China’s interests right now, who are currently building up soft power around the world through economic, infrastructural and diplomatic investments.

Is this like the fall of the Berlin Wall?

That overstating it. But it is a monumental, astonishing geopolitical development. You know when you’re hitting bongs with some irritating idiot who reckons that if world leaders just smoked weed together and all listened to whatever music is playing at that very moment (probably bad reggae) then there wouldn’t be any more war? The video below is pretty much that exact scenario taking place, possibly minus the weed. But man, we like, we can’t rule it out man.

One thing is for sure about this agreement – it is a moment that will have incredible cultural resonance for a long time to come. North Korea has been a popular boogeyman for the West for decades now – they were part of George W Bush’s Axis of Evil back in 2002, were the villains in the very bad James Bond film Die Another Day, and the seemingly funny at the time but dating very quickly Team America: World Police.

So what now?

The two sides have pledged to formally end the war this year, and there will be regular talks to hammer out the details between now and then. The hope is that they will be four-way talks, including the USA and China. It is really unlikely that it will be entirely smooth progress either. Because of the decades of hostilities, small sticking points could easily reopen old grievances. Previous agreements – which admittedly never had so much fanfare – were abandoned after the North resumed nuclear testing (according to the BBC) But there are some aspects of the agreement that give real hope: Reunification of families split by the war will be pursued, roads and train lines that cross the border will be improved, and there will be more joint participation in sporting events, like what happened at the recent Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Cultural ties will be incredibly important in keeping diplomatic progress on track.

One thing that isn’t really being considered at all yet is reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The two countries have grown to be vastly different since the war. South Korea has evolved from a brutal dictatorship until the 80s, to the functioning democracy of today. It’s also one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, as evidenced by their prowess at the game Starcraft. North Korea is a country racked by malnutrition, has the worst press freedom rating in the world, has a network of prison labour camps, and has only one real diplomatic asset – a massive army. It’s not comparable to a situation like reuniting East and West Germany, because even though there were differences between the two Germanys, they both basically had first world standards of living.

The final word

Isn’t it nice to live in a world where occasionally good things happen?

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