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A false analogy


May 13, 2018

The recent thaw between Seoul and Pyongyang has rekindled hopes for an Islamabad-New Delhi detente. If South Korea and North Korea, which have for decades remained at each other’s throats, can agree to bury the hatchet, there is no reason Pakistan and India can’t take a leaf out of their book. Is such optimism warranted? Or is it no more than a pipe dream?

Analogical reasoning, which consists of arguing from one particular instance to another, is not always a very sound mode of argumentation. The mere fact that two objects or situations share some characteristics doesn’t constitute a compelling ground for asserting that they are alike in other respects as well. Skin-deep similarities may cloud the discrepancies that lurk deeper. Therefore, the de-escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula can hardly be considered a valid reason to expect similar things to come about in South Asia as well. Each region, despite sharing some similarities, has its singular dynamics.

The Korean conflict is a legacy of the post-World War II global political order, which drew a sharp line between communist and capitalist blocs. In quite a few instances, one nation found itself bifurcated into hostile territories. North Korea became a member of the communist bloc, while South Korea allied itself with the capitalist world. The subsequent path chosen by each of the Koreas offers a classic example of building up a militaristic or an industrial society.

North Korea became a totalitarian-cum-nuclear state, which has one of the largest armies in the world and the highest number of soldiers per capita. The spectacular defence build-up has come at a horrendous socio-economic cost: economic backwardness, chronic food shortages, endemic impoverishment (per capita income is a modest $1800), and lack of civil liberties. In a word, North Korea offers a textbook example of having too much to fight but too little to eat.

With its security underwritten by the US through a mutual defence treaty, South Korea devoted its resources wholesale to economic development and emerged as one of the largest economies in Asia, with a per capita income of more than $36,000. It is also a functional democracy. A strategic ally of the West, South Korea is fully integrated into the multilateral economic and political systems. By contrast, North Korea is arguably the globe’s most closed economy and the most isolated state, which is treated as a pariah by the West, and is placed under stringent UN sanctions. Rivalry between world powers (first the cold war and later the US-China competition) and North Korea’s ambitious nuclear and missile programmes made the Korean Peninsula a hotspot.

The recent breakthrough resides in the commitment made by the two countries in the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, to bring to a halt all hostilities. The meeting is set to be a precursor to a North Korea-US summit, in which the outlines of a future course of action may be agreed. Such an agreement will usher in a peaceful co-existence of the two Koreas.

However, this will not be an unprecedented event. In an agreement signed with Washington in 2002, Pyongyang had pledged to renounce its nuclear ambitions. The accord fell apart as the following year North Korea opted out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Whether this time Pyongyang will be as good as its word is anybody’s guess.

The Korean Peninsula shares some similarities with South Asia, such as the presence of two mutually hostile states, carved out of one territory and which have also gone to war. There are also threats of weapons of mass destruction, frequent tensions and clashes on the borders, and divergent interests of world powers in the region. But beyond that, the analogy can be misleading with regard to both the genesis of the Pak-India conflict and the current situation.

While international politics may have exacerbated the acrimony in the region, it didn’t give birth to it. The discord predates the partition of India. Partition did not represent a tug-of-war between world powers, but was the result of a constitutional struggle. Unlike the Koreans, Pakistan and India are not one nation; so peaceful co-existence, rather than reunification, is the goal.

The pre-Partition discord was deepened by the Sir Cyril Radcliffe-headed boundary commission when it conceded the Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district to India, providing an overland link to Jammu and Kashmir.

South Asia does not have a militaristic-industrial society division. In both Pakistan and India, defence soaks up a sizeable portion of public expenditure. Yet neither has developed on the lines of North Korea, putting all its eggs in one basket. While being nuclear powers, neither has been oblivious of the need for economic development.

India may be a bigger and, at present, a faster growing economy than Pakistan. But the difference in economic development between the two countries is not comparable to the two Koreas. In fact, both countries are characterised by widespread poverty, illiteracy, and a low standard of living on the whole. Both countries experimented with a centrally planned economy – India had a longer tryst with socialism – and both shunned it in favour of market economy at about the same time. Although Pakistan has been a member of the US-sponsored defence arrangements, its security is not underwritten by a foreign power. The same goes for India.

International politics together with North Korea’s hawkish posture strewed the road to peace in the Korean Peninsula with enormous obstacles. Therefore, these actors hold the key to peace in that region. But it is a different ball game in South Asia. The Pak-India detente is contingent upon the resolution of outstanding issues, such as Kashmir, and presently the implementation of the Indus Basin Treaty, for which the key lies in the hands of the two countries rather than world powers.

More crucial than the government is the role of society. In both Pakistan and India, extremism and intolerance are on the rise. Pakistan is facing an existential threat at the hands of religious extremists on both militant and ideological fronts.

In India, the ascendency of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is an unmistakable sign of Hindu nationalism having gained currency at the expense of secularism. As elections are a barometer of public opinion, the BJP’s saga of electoral exploits is an index of the changing contours of the Indian society, which is discarding pluralism in favour of Hindutva.

The rise of extremism in both Pakistan and India makes it difficult for governments in either country to make meaningful concessions to the other, which is essential for conflict resolution. Thus, in the face of extremism, the search for durable peace in the region appears to be a pie in the sky.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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