Don’t Take Pictures, Until We Say Yes

This article first appeared in the Singapore Sunday Times on 3 August 1997 as a travel article but has now been substantially revised & updated to trace the political development in the Korean Peninsula between South Korea & North Korea & their allies right up to the present time.

It is beyond dispute that the affluence achieved by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) within a short span of one generation is one of the great economic miracles of this century. From a paltry per capita income of below US $100 in 1953, this ballooned to more than $10,000 in 1995, a hundredfold increase in 42 years.

In 1994, it became the second Asian country, after Japan, to join the Organisation of Economic and Cultural Development (OECD), a prestigious grouping of wealthy industrial nations. One of the dynamic Asian Tiger economies, its resounding success epitomises the ultimate triumph of human spirit and enterprise over seemingly insurmountable odds and the devastation of civil war. Throughout its turbulent history going back more than two millenia, Korea was compelled to seek accommodation with its two bigger and more powerful neighbours, China and Japan, or face the wrath of invasion by them.

Japan colonised the country from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. The north came under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and the south the United States. Three years of bitter and shattering civil war (1950-1953) followed. The South Koreans, supported by American and United Nations (UN) forces, were pitted against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) with Chinese soldiers fighting alongside them. An armistice was finally concluded at the obscure village of Panmunjom. Under the armistice agreement, Korea was carved into two halves. A Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) reflecting the battle lines, a 4000 m wide no-man’s land ringed with guard posts and barbed wires, winds some 230 km across the Korean Peninsula, from the west to the east coasts, serves as the boundary separating the two Koreas.

A Joint Security Area (JSA), a tiny strip of land in the middle of the DMZ at Panmunjom, with conference facilities managed jointly by the UN and the North Koreans, was set up to enable the protagonists to meet and resolve disputes on the armistice terms. A visit to Panmunjom is a unique travel experience, de rigueur for the discerning visitor. It is the last flash point of the Cold War and a legacy of history. The journey by coach takes approximately ninety minutes from Seoul. When our multinational group of forty arrived at the UN military camp with anticipation and mounting excitement, we were subjected to a stringent security check.

Our American military tour guide gave us a thorough briefing on the Korean War and the salient features of the camp and that of the JSA. All tour members had to sign a declaration form exonerating the UN from any legal liabilities, should deaths or injuries occur while we were there. Panmunjom is potentially a danger zone and hostile actions might take place at any time without warning. We were cautioned on the need to observe the code of conduct strictly at all times. The taking of photographs was absolutely prohibited, except at designated stops, for our own safety.

The moment we were all waiting with bated breath was the tour of the JSA. On arrival, we were hurriedly escorted into the conference room where the opposing parties meet periodically to thrash out complaints of armistice violations and to trade insults. We were allowed only five minutes for briefing and photography with a UN guard in attendance. Outside the conference room, one of the North Korean duty guards was taking snapshots of our group, possibly for record purposes. Both the Seoul and Pyongyang authorities allow group visits to Panmumjom and the conference room is available for guests.

From a vantage point near a UN guard post, we looked across to North Korea, and the village houses and farms were faintly visible. Their propaganda broadcast, aimed at their southern cousins, could be heard loud and clear. In front of us was the Bridge of No Return, where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were swapped after the Korean War. All around us, soldiers of the opposing forces kept up round-the-clock watch duty in their respective guard posts or watch towers. The soldiers had powerful binoculars trained on each other’s territory. No fewer than 404 meetings have so far been held by the parties at the JSA. These have now become less frequent after the end of the Cold War, as other means of communication have become possible.

Over the years, Panmunjom had witnessed several shootouts between the duty guards on both sides. Two incidents will illustrate the uneasy truce prevailing there. In 1976, two American officers were killed by the North Koreans over pruning a tree at the JSA by the Americans for security reasons despite objections. The Communists contended that they had planted and nurtured the tree. In another incident in 1984, a Russian diplomat, visiting the JSA as a guest of North Korea, suddenly ran across to the UN side to seek political asylum. The Communist guards immediately pursued him across the boundary line and,in an exchange of fire, a UN guard and three North Koreans were killed.The Russian defector secured his freedom. As recently as 16 July of this year, soldiers of both sides fired at each other when the North Koreans were said to have intruded into the South Korean side of the DMZ , near Panmunjom, the first serious flare up since 1984. These episodes mirror the fragility of peace in Korea. Hostilities could break out there at any moment, with global ramifications.

Updating of summit peace talks between US president Donald Trump & North Korean President Kim Chong En & developments thereafter.

The first summit meeting took place in Singapore’s Capella Hotel in June 2018 which commanded worldwide attention but without concrete results being reached which would satisfy both sides but they nevertheless agreed to meet again. The second such meeting was held in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi in 2019 but it ended as a complete failure. No further such summit talks had been held subsequently.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un at the Singapore summit (Credit: Wikimedia)

The second attempt to officially end the decades old Korean War failed for many reasons but the main bones of contention were two. North Korea insisted that US must forthwith cease all international economic & other sanctions, stop the joint South Korean & US military exercises, in exchange for the former agreeing to terminate its nuclear programmes & destroying its launching sites & facilities too.

The US was only prepared to do this after their nuclear experts and teams had personally inspected these nuclear programmes & nuclear sites and were fully satisfied that this had been done to their satisfaction & would not be revived again in future. In the mean time the international sanctions & military exercises would remain in force. These conditions were rejected by North Korea firmly.

Since then Trump & Kim had come face to face with each other informally on one more occasion at the demarcation line at Panmunjom (DMZ) and mutually stepped over it to signify to the world that they had crossed over this hitherto forbidden barrier which separates the two Koreas since the Korean War Treaty was concluded in 1953. On this historic occasion, Kim even graciously invited Trump to a casual meeting at the impressive North Korean building directly facing the Panmunjom dividing line.

The two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (Credit: Wikimedia)

To facilitate any subsequent summit meetings between Trump & Kim, Presidents Kim of North Korea & President Moon of South Korea also met for the first time in a decade at the DMZ on 18.4.2018, which formally separated both sides. After the two Presidents greeted each other warmly, Kim was invited to step over to the South Korean side first. They then walked hand in hand over to the North Korean side into the impressive Peace House for an unplanned informal historic meeting.

After lunch, the two leaders then proceeded to water a tree, which was first planted in 1953, the year the Korean War Ceasefire ceremony was officially signed by both sides, now with new soils taken from each other’s territory. A plague was specially erected in front of the tree to mark this historic occasion.

A private 30-minute walk between Kim & Moon followed, stopping at historic sites of the Korean War & deep in animated conversation. This walk ended with them stopping at the foot bridge, which was newly painted in sky blue colours of the Korean unification flag & that of the United Nations. This was televised internationally without their private chat which remained confidential.

This historic meeting ended movingly with them hugging each other repeatedly & pledging to each other that permanent peace would soon be achieved in the Korean Peninsula & Korea would then be united as one nation again.

Despite the above warm & intimate talks between these two Presidents, no concrete achievements resulted as the gulfs & expectations between the US & allies & North Korea remained unresolved for lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula to materialise in the foreseeable future.

In view of the continuing failure to reach agreement between US & North Korea, the latter intensified its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles development which, even before the summit talks, were capable of reaching the Western part of America, including California, which would cause catastrophic destruction to it. Far from being threatened by this threat, the US made it be known that its own advanced nuclear technology can intercept & destroy such ballistic missiles before it can reach any part of its home land.

To date, permanent peace in the Korean Peninsular remains impossible to achieve unless a mutually acceptable peace treaty can be reached which is agreeable to both sides. The risk of a nuclear war breaking out remains a possibility but seems quite unlikely for the time being. Notwithstanding that assumption by military experts, whenever a joint military exercise was being held, North Korea would follow immediately with a powerful ballistic missile fired into the sea near Japan as a stern warning to its opponents.

On the other hand, If a land war should ever happen between both sides, the US and its allies & China & possibly Russia too, will be inevitably drawn into it with resultant catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

Since President Biden assumed office in 2021, no further attempts have so far been made by both sides for another summit meeting between Biden & Kim to reach a lasting peace in Korea. Hence, the possibility of a devastating land war breaking out there cannot be ruled out.

This updated article will be reposted in this format in my blog to reflect the current situation in the Korean Peninsula between the two divided Korean nations with no prospects of reunification between them in the realistic foreseeable future.

Despite the uncertainty of lasting peace in Korea in the near future, it must have come as a surprise to many when President Kim announced that in 2022 his country will focus mainly on economic advancement and less on nuclear development & enhancing its strained relationship with US & its allies.

President Moon of South Korea will make a final push for lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula despite past rebuffs from President Kim before his term of office ended this year.

Ri Sol-ju, Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in, and Kim Jong-sook during the 2018 inter-Korean summit. (Credit Wikimedia)

It must have come as another great surprise & created an international stir when North Korea launched a projectile likely to be a ballistic missile near the Sea of Japan on 5.1.22 in violation of UN Security Council ruling. This was immediately condemned by US & allies & their response to this will be made known after urgent consultations with each other. They are most likely to seek UN’s help to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if they continue to launch more missiles aimed at endangering the safety of US and its allies.

North Korea had just confirmed that it had successfully launched a second hypersonic missile which is a very powerful & deadly weapon. The first such missile was fired in September last year.

The Biden administration has responded immediately that the US side is open to talks with North Korea in order to achieve lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula. President Kim’s reply is that to prove that this gesture is not empty rhetoric, the US must first cease its wide ranging sanctions & military drills against his country.

To further intensify its missile launchings, North Korea had between the 5th to 18th January this year fired five more missiles, the first into Japan’s East Sea coast and the other four landed into its own sea coasts in light of US’s enhanced sanctions having been imposed on the former, hoping that this would bring both parties back to the negotiation table once again aimed at achieving lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has not responded to US’s talks gestures. Instead it warned its opponent that it would embark on an even more powerful response to any US attempts to rein it in, thus raising the specter of a return to the period of “fire & fury” threats in 2017.

In support of its above warning, North Korea fired what appeared to be two cruise missiles into its east sea coast on 25th of January this year.

Lam Pin Foo

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