The hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953, but eastern Asia’s longest ongoing conflict has never been officially resolved – until, it seems, now.
When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un stepped on South Korean soil on Friday, it was the first time a leader from the North had done so. The thaw between Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae In is momentous. But it prompts a question: Can it really be this easy?
Maybe. We have been at or near this point a few times, most recently in 2000 when Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, hosted South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in Pyongyang.
But there is much left to sort out, and it will be complicated. Any prospective peace treaty will require the approval of parties to the 1953 cease-fire agreement, including China and the United States, which continues to maintain a fighting force of 28,500 in South Korea.
The traditional U.S. position holds North Korea must permanently forsake its nuclear weapons program as a prerequisite for a peace agreement. Mr. Kim has halted missile tests and said he supports a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” He also appears willing to accept the continued presence of American soldiers.
But the details matter, and history tells us North Korea is devilishly hard to pin down. A “nuclear-free” peninsula could well end up referring to the nukes that America uses to defend South Korea and other allies in the region.
And then there is U.S. President Donald Trump, the only politician who can rival the Kim dynasty for bombast and unpredictability. Historians may remember his bold offer to hold a summit with Mr. Kim as a pivotal moment, but there is no way of knowing whether or not he can see this through to the end.
As well, this feels more like the economically driven collapse of the Soviet Union than a triumph of diplomacy. Peace holds much greater benefits for the North than the South; the country ruled by Mr. Kim’s neo-Stalinist regime is poor, isolated and starving.
But none of this makes this moment less extraordinary, nor tarnishes the cautious hope it elicits.