A commentary on the Panmunjom Declaration

by Caesar D’Mello
Pax Christi Australia

Very few events in the life of the Asia-Pacific region during the last few decades match in significance the hand-in-hand walk of the leaders of North and South Korea over the strip of land at the 38th parallel on 27 April 2018. While a certain level of cynicism is to be expected, and self-interest no doubt played a part, the symbolism of that action is astonishing nevertheless, and its implications potentially far-reaching.

Who could have thought that after a bitterly fought Korean War (1950-1953) between the two Koreas, and one involving China and the US, the world would witness such a moment? To truly appreciate what might have been considered unlikely by most till the day it actually occurred, one only needs to picture the setting in which it took place. After a ferocious war that generated no peace but an uneasy and ever volatile stalemate, the enmity between the two sides remained frozen in institutionalised structures and hostilities designed to perpetuate the red hot anger of a war in which more than 3 million sacrificed their lives in vain. The land on either side of the 4 kilometre-wide strip of land that has come to be known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a testament to hate: ringed by barbed wire, saturated with land mines, under surveillance by human and all forms of electronic eyes, supported by the Korean forces on either side, with the might of the two superpowers providing additional military muscle. The line over which Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in crossed, metaphorically and physically entering each other’s forbidden territory, was situated right at the heart of this menacing stretch of land least the oriented to good relations. However, their gesture, and the liberating exchange between them, despite the implausibility, demonstrated the capacity of human beings to overcome the most odious of circumstances.

Time will tell how this unprecedented event will play out into prospects and outcomes for peace for the two peoples of Korea and the world at large, but for now it is a moment worth celebrating. Even if re-unification of the Korean nation is a long time coming or does not eventuate eventually, at least for the immediate future the ground has shifted to allow a move from a prism of continually stoked confrontation through which to see each other to one of friendship and optimism for peace. Trivial though it may seem, the decision, for instance, by North Korea to synchronise their clocks with South Korea’s is potent symbolically, and, in its own way, a good portent for the future.

In light of the multiple positives that can be identified in the Panmunjom summit, Pax Christi Asia-Pacific asserts that one cannot just view the developments of a few days ago as if looking at goldfish in a fishbowl without relevance to the context of the wider region. To say that the Asia-Pacific region is awash with conflicts would be an understatement. From Iran and Afghanistan all the way to Papua New Guinea and beyond, governments, defence forces, warring groups, and their advocates are bogged down in hostility and combat. They are now challenged to find inspiration for ways forward applicable to their own situations to tread the path of peace from the actions in Korea of two of the most implacable of adversaries.

It is to be welcomed that just as the two Korean leaders were the centre of attention of the world’s media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jin Ping of China were participating in talks to reduce the tension between their two giant countries that had been exacerbated by skirmishes on the borders between India, China and Bhutan just a few recent months earlier. Pax Christi Asia-Pacific acknowledges this as a commendable step, and hopes that it will lead to many confidence and trust-building deliberations as a precursor to lasting peace.

Another major conflict that has been entrenched in prejudice and intransigence for over seven decades is that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir that has already resulted in three wars with many killed. Its gravity is now further deepened as the two sides are nuclear-armed with the ability to inflict massive devastation on each other’s people, whose welfare and safety should be paramount in decision-making. How long should we wait before we can see a generous, visionary, mutually benefiting resolution on this front?

The Asia-Pacific is teeming with internal conflicts in big and small countries, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, PNG, Fiji, to name a few countries. Forward looking leadership, in the spirit of Panmunjom, is urgently called for in these countries.

Pax Christi Asia Pacific is concerned over the opportunity costs of the focus, energy, and resources dedicated to a war or conflict drained away from more important issues, such as the quality of life. It is indefensible that the vast majority of the poor miss out as a result. The extent of poverty pervading many parts of Asia-Pacific where conflict rages is unjustifiable, and it is morally urgent that widespread inequity be addressed effectively. This has been agreed to at a global level. The world’s governments, including Asian and Pacific governments, by unanimously adopting the UN Sustainable Development Goals – SDG’s (www.globalgoals.org) have accepted that a world wherein a great number of people are unable to even reach or do just reach the first level in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, encompassing food, water, shelter, clothing, and safety, is an indictment of the prevailing system that harbours wasteful confrontations. While external and internal security is indeed the duty of governments, they have to balance this transparently and imaginatively with the obligation to look after those who miss out on the wherewithal for survival and a better life.

A Just Peace emphasising mutual respect, healing and reconciliation is far more productive of a dignified living for all rather than the shadow of conflict. However, for this to evolve requires proactive leadership from both disputing sides. While we mark the Panmunjom Summit as a historic landmark in human affairs, the persistent efforts of the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, to cultivate an environment for peace should also be noted. The tree of peace that both leaders planted during their Summit speaks volumes in terms of the human ability to fashion a better world. Other leaders in history have shown that this is possible, including an iconic one in recent memory, namely Nelson Mandela, whose 100th birth anniversary falls this year.

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Caesar D’Mello is a member of Pax Christi Australia and has for many years been engaged in concerns of development, peace, and climate change. This commentary is released by the Pax Christi-Asia Pacific network, consisting of sections and affiliated members of Pax Christi International in the Asia-Pacific region. For more information, please contact: paxchristiasiapacific@gmail.com.

* Photo from The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Moon-Kim-Handshake-rtr-img.jpg

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