North-South on the centre-stage
It would be naïve to read too much into developments in the Korean peninsula where the leaders of North and South Koreas have held what’s being hailed as a ‘historic’ summit. President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Kim Jong Il of the North signed a joint declaration in Pyongyang last Thursday to initiate a series of economic and political steps to end the North’s isolation in the world. A major objective of the declaration only the second since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War is apparently to commit both Seoul and Pyongyang to seek a permanent peace treaty. In the absence of such a formal compact, the two Koreas are, technically, still at war.
Although the North’s roller-coaster relations with the South have shown a marked improvement since 2000, their border remains one of the most heavily militarised in the world, with thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul. North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test greatly increased the risk of an East Asian arms race, forcing countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to consider becoming nuclear weapons States. The problem is complicated by the fact that any peace treaty that replaces the armistice signed by China, the US and North Korea would require participation from all three countries. And Washington makes its support conditional on Pyongyang abandoning its controversial nuclear weapons programme. So at first glance, it may appear that Pyongyang’s reported decision to close its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, along with fuel manufacturing and reprocessing facilities, should remove this hurdle. The North appears to have agreed to this in return for substantial amounts of energy aid and the prospect of diplomatic recognition. Optimism at this stage, however, could be misplaced considering several thorny issues remain unresolved. It is unclear, for one, if the North has a secret uranium programme, or how many nuclear weapons it has and what happens to these.
Still, at the end of the day, even a dubious deal to make the world safer is better than no deal at all and we should welcome last week’s ‘historic’ summit.