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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Korea peace agreement is a stunning breakthrough, but are 'good things' really happening?

The talks between North and South Korea always promised to be a moment of spectacular political theatre. They did not disappoint

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands after signing a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone, South Korea. Korea Summit Press Pool via AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands after signing a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone, South Korea. Korea Summit Press Pool via AP

Many had expected the talks between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea's president Moon Jae-in to be carefully stage-managed and to yield a concession here or there, but few can genuinely have expected the outcomes of Friday’s summit to be quite so positive or so wide-ranging.

While analysts rightly draw attention to the lack of substantive detail in Friday’s accord, the broad heads of agreement to reduce tensions, cease hostilities and rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons – as well as pursue further and smaller points of cooperation between the two countries – far exceeds the expectations of warm handshakes and little else that had preceded this historic occasion.

On the contrary, pessimists had predicted that Friday’s talks were doomed to failure. Some expected them to be a jumping off point to a destination point that remained far, far away. Few believed that journey could be undertaken at quite such breakneck pace. Getting the leaders of the two countries together for the first time since 2007 was considered an achievement in itself. Getting them to agree on a number of key points of difference was seen as optimistic and unattainable.

Now, of course, the hard work begins. As pessimists will remind those who see only the good in Friday’s opening, the past is littered with moments of international détente that quickly crumbled into disappointment. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, for instance, agreed in 2003 to dispense with his stockpiles of WMD and to curb his own nuclear ambitions only to renege on his promise. At the time of Qaddafi’s agreement there was great hope that he had turned towards reengagement with the world. Libya’s fractured shell today stands as evidence of the folly of investing too heavily in false dawns. Even a few months ago, as the drums of war appeared to sound a little louder on the Korean peninsula every day, few thought the "Rocket Man”, as the US president Donald Trump famously labelled Mr Kim, could be capable of constructive dialogue and concession. Today, Mr Trump tweeted that "good things are happening" between North and South Korea.

In truth, we may find out that Mr Kim is not capable of "good things" or of ending a decades-long conflict. Earlier today, Mr Kim told Mr Moon that he felt like he was “firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of [the two Koreas] writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity,” That beacon has been seen the world over. Now North Korea’s leader must prove that he is committed to reform and reconciliation. He must follow up his talk of peace with a proper plan of action.