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Can a handshake change the world?

Friday, April 27, 2018 could be remembered as a game changer in world politics. On that day, the leaders of North and South Korea met on the Military Demarcation Line, which was drawn in blood after three years of fierce fighting between Korean communists and nationalists. Both leaders stepped on to the other side, shook hands and embraced each other.

Until very recently, this was unthinkable. Rather — it was feared that rising tensions between the two states would explode into a nuclear war. North Korea blamed the United States (US) and South Korea for seeking to destabilise it through encirclement and crushing sanctions. The US and South Korea accused North Korea of imperilling peace in the region and beyond, by its continuing development of nuclear bombs and delivery systems which would enable it to strike far and wide.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un upped the ante by describing the US as a bully and President Trump a mad man. He also claimed he could press his nuclear button, and hit which ever part of the world he wanted. Trump, second to none in such an exchange of invectives returned in kind and vowed to exterminate the North Korean regime. All this happened just four months ago.


Then, the international system came into play. Diplomacy set in motion processes which made both sides climb down; hence the handshakes and embraces between the chief executives of the two Koreas. These are preparatory to President Trump’s visit to North Korea, which is scheduled in the next few weeks. He has suggested meeting Kim Jong Un at the Peace House on the border between North and South Korea. As such, we need to put the Korean conflict into perspective.

A Korean Empire existed until in 1905,when it was forced to sign a protectorate treaty with Japan. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Korean resistance was crushed ruthlessly. After the end of WW-II, which resulted in Japan’s defeat, the victorious powers divided Korea into a Soviet protectorate in the north, and a southern protectorate placed primarily under the United States. Efforts to unite the two failed. The peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel. The ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ in the north and the ‘Republic of Korea’ in the south. In 1950 Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the present ruler of North Korea, started a war with a view to reunify the country under Communist rule. The UN Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution in favour of sending troops to the aid of the South. China and the Soviet Union came to the aid of North Korea, while UN forces comprising 20 nations under American command and 90 percent American troops, fought on the side of the South.

It was a bloody conflict which claimed thousands of lives. US General MacArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb, but was overruled by President Truman. Finally, a cease-fire was agreed to in 1953. The two nations remained officially at war because a peace treaty was never signed. Both states were accepted into the United Nations in1991.While North Korea became a Communist Dynasty, South Korea made the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy and became an industrial powerhouse. Several efforts have been made over the years to reunite the two Koreas. But the ideological differences have been too intractable.

This time round, the emphasis is not on reunification but on demilitarisation and denuclearization. Both sides realise that war is not an option and constant tension on their borders serves no purpose except to perpetuate fear and anxiety. We need to put the Korean conflict into perspective. The Korean Peninsula has seen the rise and fall of empires. Buddhism, Korean Shamanism and Confucianism make up the main religious and ethical traditions of 80 million people who speak the Korean language. Converts to Christianity grew in large numbers in South Korea after partition. It is the second largest religion in South Korea. Ethnically Koreans are an East Asian people.

It may be too early to start pinning too much hope on this handshake. After all, in 1993, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the lawns in front of the White House in Washington. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fanatical Zionist and thereafter things went from bad to worse.

Our own region has had many famous handshakes. President Ayyub Khan and Prime Minister LalBahadurShastri met in Tashkent in 1966 after a meaningless war in 1965. They pledged not to go to war again, but in 1971 they did.

Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee’s historic visit to Lahore in February 1999 culminated in the Lahore Accord of February 21. Both sides declared that they would not resort to arms to resolve their disputes and efforts would be made to resolve the Kashmir dispute peacefully. General Pervez Musharraf and his buddies decided to sabotage that effort by sending men to occupy military posts inside Indian controlled territory in Kargil. It resulted in a mini-war which could have escalated to an exchange of nuclear bombs.

Afterwards Pervez Musharraf became a peacenik and met AtalBihari Vajpayee at Agra in 2002. The Agra Agreement was based on an understanding that the Kashmir dispute will be resolved without borders being redrawn, but rendered redundant was about to be signed when somebody in the Indian Foreign Office sabotaged it by informing Vajpayee that according to a resolution passed by the Indian Parliament, the Pakistani Azad Kashmir was an integral part of India and therefore the Agra Agreement cannot be signed by the Indian prime minister.

Next, ultra-nationalist NarendraModi came to Lahore to attend a wedding in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family.

Peace-loving Pakistanis and Indians interpreted it as a good omen. So-called non-state actors spoiled that opportunity through a terrorist attack on the Indian base in Pathankot.

Some people think that because of religious difference between Hindus and Muslims, peace between India and Pakistan or a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute is not possible. If that were true, Pakistan should have the best of relations with Afghanistan and the Middle East should be all love and peace, but the facts belie such a theory.

I think the major difference between the Korean and the Indo-Pakistan disputes is that both North and South Korea are in full control of what happens in their societies. If North or South Korea or the United States were to renege on a peace deal, we would know who did what and possibly why, because there would be no non-state actors involved who could ostensibly act against the will of the states. That unfortunately, is not true of the situation in the Indian subcontinent.