On Tuesday 26 June 2018, the Institute welcomed NSW Supreme Court judge and author Michael Pembroke, who spoke on the topic of his most recent book, Korea – Where the American Century Began (Hardie Grant, 2018). Pembroke was joined in discussion by Richard Broinowski, author and former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, the central American republics and Cuba.
Pembroke analysed the way in which historical events have laid the foundations for the current state of hostility on the Korean Peninsula. Despite the military armistice, the United States refused to sign a peace treaty with China and North Korea at the 1954 Geneva conference and later, in 1957, unilaterally chose to undermine the armistice by placing nuclear weapons on South Korean soil (removed in 1991). The eleven US presidents since Truman had not been willing to engage with the question of a peace treaty with North Korea, despite the repeated requests of North Korean leaders.
Pembroke then turned his attention to the recent Singapore summit and the historic meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Contrary to news reports and recent discussions on the topic, Pembroke argued that denuclearisation was not a central issue at the Singapore Summit. Instead, he contended that the negotiations were waged in an attempt to persuade the United States to end the “state of war” that has prevailed on the peninsular for decades and subsequently allow North Korea to move forward with a greater chance of security, stability and prosperity. He claimed that the order of the propositions in the joint statement signed by the leaders of the US and North Korea in Singapore was a testament to this – with peace and prosperity being the first objective of the document and denuclearisation coming further down the list.
To summarise the central argument of his book and conclude his discussion of the topic, Pembroke suggested that “if there is to be a peace treaty, the American century will end” – the current demilitarised zone will no longer have any relevance and there will be no role for continued US control of the South Korean military.
Richard Broinowski agreed with many of Pembroke’s points about the outcomes of the Singapore summit and took a closer look at the details of the agreement as well as the likelihood of nuclear disarmament in the region. He highlighted the fact that the term “denuclearization” could potentially mean many different things, and that the declaration issued by Trump and Kim Jong Un did not specify the extent to which nuclear disarmament would take place, how this would be measured and checked, and what roadmap there might be towards progress on the issue. He also briefly spoke on Trump’s decision to suspend the South Korean war games, which he claimed had always been provocative to North Korea – their end would be a necessary step in improving relations between the two countries.
Broinowski was optimistic overall about the Singapore negotiations and the ongoing efforts by states to declare nuclear free zones, but saw the United States position as a major nuclear power as a hindrance to any concerted efforts towards total disarmament.
In response to questions Pembroke and Broinowski saw no need for US involvement in South Korea, both declaring that America’s military presence and control were no longer necessary. South Korea seemed to be optimistic about the future of negotiations and not overly apprehensive about improving relations with North Korea.
Report by Isabella Svinos,
AIIA NSW intern