29 Apr 2018

Time to centre Koreans in analyses of the peace process

2:23 pm on 29 April 2018

Opinion - The reaction among South Koreans to the recent declaration of peace is cautiously optimistic, writes Patrick Thomsen

A man walks past a newspaper featuring a front page story about the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

A man walks past a newspaper featuring a front page story about the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Photo: AFP

Like the rest of South Korea's 50 million or so residents, for the past 24 hours, my attention has been monopolised by the stunning announcements that came from Panmunjom yesterday.

The reaction among South Koreans has been cautiously optimistic. I was in transit between Seoul and Wonju as the joint statement beamed live to us on the bus. One lady was clearly overwhelmed as she sat next to me wiping away tears.

Denuclearisation, a new peace, and unification - the pillars of Panmunjom, I have dubbed them - seems to have ignited possibilities of change; something that Koreans had seemed to have long ago abandoned.

I moved here in 2008 when memories of the Sunshine policy era began to fade with the rise of a Lee Myung-bak regime that subscribed wholly to American realpolitik.

During the past decade, war had always seemed closer than peace.

The promises of Panmunjom are heady. News shows here have even deployed images of doves flying across the background to highlight the start of a new peaceful era.

Western analysts however, have already circled: can we trust the DPRK and what about the mechanics of denuclearisation? How will Washington react if North Korea were to drag its feet as it has done so in the past?

There is something distinctly familiar about these Western critiques, especially those of international relations experts, whose discipline unashamedly admits that it believes cultural context doesn't matter.

For one thing, the framing of a DPRK that has "trashed" agreements in the past ignores the role our own governments and South Korean regimes have played in not fronting on promises.

Moreover, international relations experts have a terrible track record at predicting war or peace. The fall of the Berlin wall was only explained after the fact, and the invasion of Crimea by Putin's Russia was not predicted by Western experts either.

South Koreans are well aware of the slippery nature of DPRK diplomacy. Since I've been here, North Korea has sunk navy ships, shelled South Korean islands (both leading to significant loss of life) and threatened to reduce Seoul to a sea of fire.

Not once though have South Koreans pushed for war. Korea's social, political, historical and cultural context is unique, and as such should no longer be ignored in our analyses. Now is the time for a diverse set of Korean voices to be listened to.

US president Donald Trump has already been quick to claim this as a victory for his foreign policy on Twitter.

However, the real trump card has been South Korea president Moon Jae-In, who swept to power last year after President Park Geun-Hye (daughter of former military dictator Park Chunghee) was removed from office and thrown into jail). Moon campaigned on a platform that promised to bring a softer approach to the DPRK and, so far, has been running that script without any hitches.

What the US can take credit for is Trump's bamboozling tweet-storms that makes it seem like he wants to isolate the US from its allies like South Korea, making urgent the need for the Koreas to put their differences aside and solve this issue on their terms. One of the most significant statements that the Panmunjom declaration made was that from now on, Koreans would work together to take charge of the affairs of the Korean peninsula.

Western analysts should take this statement more seriously.

There may be a lot of water that needs to pass under a bridge before a lasting peace can be established, but a divided Korean peninsula is as much a product of Western imperialism as it is perpetuated by DPRK belligerence.

This fact itself means that a realist angle is not enough in being able to understand what will unfold here over the next six to 12 months. The time has come to better centre Koreans and their experiences when we try to understand the complexities of the Korean peace process.

* Seuta'afili Patrick Thomsen is a Samoan-New Zealander appointed as a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University's Institute for Poverty Alleviation and International Development in South Korea. He researches transnational identity formation, gender, and international relations.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs