Seeking Peace on the 38th Parallel: Diplomacy in the Koreas

Neil Andrews


Photo Source: Globaljuggler via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1998 the South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, extended an olive branch to his Northern counterpart and adversary, Kim Jong-il.  The peace offering was known as the “Sunshine Policy” – a diplomatic framework aimed at peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas – which would win him the Nobel Peace Prize only two years later.  Fifteen years on, is the policy little more than a dead letter?

The short answer is yes and no.  Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, North Korea’s Kim dynasty has been labelled by America, and much of the western world, as belonging to an “Axis of Evil”, which also included Iran and (back then) Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  As a result, North Korea became increasingly insular, solidifying its isolationist and militaristic outlook.  A year after the bombing of the World Trade Centre, four South Korean fisherman and thirty North Koreans were killed during a skirmish over contested fishing territory.  Then, in 2010, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island took place, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, in addition to the sinking of the South Korean navy vessel, Cheonan, occurring only months before, which resulted in 46 fatalities and was allegedly the work of a North Korean torpedo.  Territorial disputes around the 38th parallel, the dividing line, abound.

Perhaps more worrying for South Korea’s 50 million or so inhabitants is Pyongyang’s constant nuclear posturing.  It is thought that Kim Jong-il successfully tested North Korea’s first nuclear weapon back in 2006.  Since his death in 2011 and succession by his son and current leader, Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang’s path to nuclear enrichment has been unfaltering: the launch of a satellite on a Unha-3 type rocket in December 2012 and a third successful nuclear test earlier this year bear testament to this – much to the chagrin of the U.N. Security Council, who’s sanctions seem to be falling on deaf ears.  Nuclear capability now looks within Kim Jong-un’s grasp, who is perhaps less than a decade away from achieving full uranium-enrichment, and is armed with ballistics already capable of hitting targets as far afield as India and Alaska.


Photo by Neil Andrews.

But it is not all doom and gloom.  South Korea’s recently elected female President, Park Geun-hye, is once again keen to build bridges between North and South.  Employing a policy that she has dubbed “trustpolitik”, Mrs Park is taking a more pragmatic line than her no-nonsense, hardline predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.  Using carrots (food aid and medicines) and sticks (sanctions and embargos), she is devising policy that is both firm and fair: rewarding the North for co-operation, while punishing it for dissent.  And there has been some success.  Back in September, the Kaesong industrial complex, a long-standing symbol of collaboration between the Koreas, was reopened following lengthy negotiations.  Then, earlier this month, Merrill Newman, an 85-year old American Korean War veteran who had been detained whilst on a trip to North Korea, was released in an apparent gesture of goodwill.

Despite less intense sabre-rattling from Pyongyang, many are still unconvinced that diplomacy is working.  U.N. sanctions, for one, are failing to curb Northern militarism.  The blacklisting of dangerous companies, for example, carries little threat: changing the name of the company or reflagging a ship is an easy way to bypass this.  Lorries, usually used for carrying timber, are converted into deadly missile launchers.  The rules are constantly being bent by the North.  China, too, who supplies up to 70% of North Korea’s trade, is reluctant for Pyongyang to fall into western hands – for now, it is a useful buffer state and bargaining chip.  There are also rumours that Seoul has been embezzling American aid money intended for the North, which will do little to instil faith in Mrs Park’s policies.

Yet South Koreans must not give up their dream of a peaceful, unified Korea.  Upon visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South earlier this year, I was heartened to see the efforts to which South Koreans will go to foster goodwill between two supposed “enemies”.  At Dorasan train station, the last calling point before you reach the North, the lobby is adorned with paintings and poems designed and written by primary school children.  They offer a vision of a prosperous, united Korean peninsula.  Perhaps most fitting is the plaque displayed on the station platform, which, in a tone full of hope, reads: “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North”.  Maybe the legacy of Mr Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” has not been lost on the new generation after all?

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