Foreign Affairs

Korea peace talks expose some fault lines

Peace talks on the Korean peninsula are picking up pace, but how likely is reunification - and is it what everyone in South Korea wants? Sam Sachdeva reports on the atmosphere in Seoul, and some of the other diplomatic discussions occupying the country's politicians.

Walking around central Seoul, it’s not long until you’re hit in the face by optimism about unification talks between the South and the North.

Hanging from the side of the old Seoul City Hall for all to see is a photo of South Korean President Moon Jae-in clasping hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu.

The picture was taken at the most recent meeting between the two leaders in September, a summit which has led to further suggestions that a peace treaty and denuclearisation agreement may be possible.

But while Moon’s peace push is seen by some as the key to bolstering his approval ratings dragged down by economic issues, the strategy is not without risk.

Su Jeong Kim, an editorial writer for the conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, said critics were concerned not with the talks themselves but the approach of appeasement being taken - perhaps exemplified by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who created a stir on Wednesday when she suggested the country was considering lifting its economic sanctions against North Korea.

"Why would Kim Jong Un suddenly change and become like BTS?”

“Of course we support the summit itself, the conversation must go on, but the main goal is to have denuclearisation first and it seems as if they’re going the other way around,” Kim said.

A military agreement signed at the September summit, calling for the establishment of “peace zones” and the clearing of landmines around the DMZ, seemed lopsided given the North’s history of initiating military actions, she said.

Then there is the fundamental issue of whether these discussions will be any different from previous attempts to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, where early positivity quickly fizzled out.

Kim said the Moon administration was insistent that the North Korean regime was “totally different from those in the past, while public opinion was divided between those who agreed Pyongyang’s positivity should be taken at face value and those who were sceptical given the “vicious” murders of administration critics, including Kim Jong Un’s own brother and uncle.

“They would say, why would Kim Jong Un suddenly change and become like BTS?” she said, referring to the K-pop boy band which has taken the world by storm.

A generation gap on unification

Interestingly, the idea of unification of the two Koreas has exposed a generation gap within South Korea.

Polling has shown younger people are less supportive of unification, feeling less of a connection to their North Korean neighbours.

Kim said young South Koreans were more concerned about their own futures than a symbolic peace agreement, and with an economy already slowing down were worried about the high cost of integrating millions of North Koreans into society.

The role of the United States and its polarising president Donald Trump in the peace talks is an added complication.

While South Korea has traditionally had a strongly favourable view of the US, there has been a slight downtick since Trump’s election, while the American president has been critical of Seoul for failing to adequately cover the costs of the 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

There is a constant police presence around the US Embassy, a building ringed with a high, forbidding fence.

A People's Democracy Party protester outside the US Embassy in Seoul, calling for American troops to leave the country and the immediate lifting of sanctions against North Korea. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The area is particularly fortified one day, the result of protesters from the left-wing People’s Democracy Party brandishing placards with Trump dressed as Hitler and calling for an immediate end to sanctions against North Korea.

However, the group appears to occupy a distinct fringe of the political debate, with many South Koreans still firmly supportive of the US; one observer suggests darkly, although without any proof, that there may be North Korean spies in their midst.

Kim said the US alliance remained important to South Korea given the threats posed by North Korea and China.

While there was occasional surprise about Trump’s attitude towards the country, his budding friendship with Kim Jong Un - he spoke at a US rally of how they “fell in love” over an exchange of “beautiful letters” - had provided some comfort regarding potential US-North Korea hostilities.

However, Kim said there was still a fear that Trump might focus simply on getting rid of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, which pose a direct threat to the US, instead of a wider solution for the Korean peninsula.

Given those complexities, it’s no surprise the Moon administration has found it difficult to walk a fine line: Kang’s sanctions remarks earned a swift rebuke from Trump, who said Seoul would “do nothing without our approval”.

Dokdo difficulties

While inter-Korean talks may be warming up, historically fraught relations with an Asian neighbour have taken on an increasingly chilly tone.

Earlier this month, Japan was excluded from an international fleet review hosted by South Korea due to its navy’s use of the “Rising Sun” flag, seen by many Koreans as an unpleasant reminder of the suffering they faced under colonial Japanese rule.

Another flashpoint has been a territorial dispute over a group of tiny islands in the Sea of Japan (known in Seoul as the East Sea) referred to by Korea as Dokdo, and by Japan as Takeshima.

The dispute is one area where North and South Korea are on the same page: an inter-Korean flag produced for the joint team competing at the Winter Olympics earlier this year included the islands (it was later amended at the request of Japan and the IOC), while a mango mousse served at a summit between Moon and Kim in April included a stylised map with Dokdo.

To further press South Korea’s claim, the Dokdo Museum was opened by a state-run research institute in 2012 (Japan has since opened its own Takeshima museum).

The Dokdo dispute can seem a little puzzling to outsiders, but South Korea is clearly passionate about asserting its claim to the world: past publicity efforts have included a front-page ad in the New York Times and the distribution of 100,000 rubber bracelets in the US proclaiming that “Dokdo is Korean territory”.

The high-tech exhibits include a thin veneer of entertainment, like a augmented reality computer game allowing children to “fish” in the island waters as well as a nausea-inducing 4D virtual tour of the area.

But the real reason the curators want you there is the halls with a painstaking historical narrative of the 1500 years that South Korea says Dokdo has been under their ownership, complete with replicas of historical documents.

There is even a precise mathematical formula for how to best capture the sunrise over the islets from neighbouring South Korean island Ulleungdo - along with a casual mention that Dokdo cannot be seen from the Oki Islands, the nearest undisputed Japanese territory.

The dispute can seem a little puzzling to outsiders, but South Korea is clearly passionate about asserting its claim to the world: past publicity efforts have included a front-page ad in the New York Times and the distribution of 100,000 rubber bracelets in the US proclaiming that “Dokdo is Korean territory”.

It is a reminder that South Korea’s diplomatic picture is far more complex than many perceive it; there seems to be a sense of frustration from some officials that the country is defined by its interactions with its brash, communist counterpart to the north.

Unfortunately for them, that seems unlikely to change while larger than life figures like Kim Jong Un and Trump loom over the geopolitical scenery.

* The author’s trip to Seoul was arranged by the Korean government.

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