Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward
Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward
Cautious Hope Ahead of U.S.-North Korea Meeting
Cautious Hope Ahead of U.S.-North Korea Meeting
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the truce village of Panmunjom
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, on 27 April 27 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters
Commentary / Asia 5 minutes

Korean Presidents’ Meeting is a Memorable Step Forward

Symbolism and substance combined to make the 27 April meeting between the North and South Korean presidents a momentous occasion. Much needs to be done to overcome scepticism from past failures, but the concrete timeline the two countries laid out in the Panmunjom Declaration could lead to transformative steps.

What's happening in Korea?

The leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met in the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom today. It was the third inter-Korean summit, and the first such meeting in a decade.

The meeting was rich with symbolism. Every element, from the size of the conference table to the dinner menu, suggested deeper meaning. The pine tree Kim and Moon planted near the inter-Korean border was nourished with soil from the highest mountains in North and South Korea, Paektu and Halla, and water from the Han and Taedong rivers that run through the two Korean capital cities.

But there was also substance. Kim and Moon spent 40 minutes in private discussion in the afternoon, the results of which will take time to emerge. Senior officials accompanying the leaders took the opportunity to discuss their individual remits. And finally, the two sides issued the Panmunjom Declaration for Korean Peninsula Peace, Prosperity and Unification (hereafter the Panmunjom Declaration) at 18:00.

What’s new in the Panmunjom Declaration?

The declaration contains a lot of positive language and concrete steps that, pending successful negotiation of the details and implementation, could evolve into transformative shifts in inter-Korean relations. The most significant of these steps are the reaffirmation plans for regular communication through a dedicated phone line linking the two leaders, and the launching of three- and four-party talks with the U.S., and in the latter case, China, to bring about an end to the Korean War and institute a “peace system” on the Korean peninsula.

The stage is thus set for multilateral dialogue as spring turns to summer. Today’s symbolically important inter-Korean meeting makes the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un all the more likely. And the news that Moon Jae-in is to visit Pyongyang in the autumn implies a very welcome intention to continue moving in a positive direction.

While both states talk of denuclearisation, the word means different things to each government.

U.S.-North Korean talks are likely to be dominated by discussion of the future of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. While both states talk of denuclearisation, the word means different things to each government. The U.S. seeks unilateral denuclearisation from North Korea, while North Korea itself sees its denuclearisation as contingent, at a minimum, on the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella from South Korea. The Panmunjom Declaration ends with positive language on denuclearisation, but contains no substance. It does not mention missiles at all. There is still much to be done.

Both Moon and Kim acknowledged this morning that some of their promises had been heard before, in the declarations of the 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean summits. The failure to make good on those pledges has contributed much to the pervasive mistrust, and the cynicism, which many in South Korea feel toward the North. Though North Korea is responsible for many acts of unconscionable aggression over the years, the failed declarations are not entirely Pyongyang’s fault. The 2007 statement, for example, included language on actively pursuing inter-Korean dialogue, terminating military hostilities, connecting the two Koreas by road and rail, and actively expanding joint economic projects, to say nothing of implementing Six-Party Talks agreements on denuclearisation. Very little came of it. The two sides must establish robust political structures for the implementation of today’s agreements, or the same could all too easily happen again.

Why is it happening now and why does it matter?

After two years of particularly high tension, in the second half of 2017 there was concern, most prominently in the United States, but also in Japan, South Korea and China, that the Korean peninsula was sliding toward conflict. That 2018 saw a turn toward dialogue and four months of rapidly warming relations, first between the two Koreas but then between North Korea and the United States and then China, too, is a welcome change.

The shift to dialogue was made possible in the first instance by North Korea’s decision to engage with South Korea at the beginning of 2018, and from there, thanks in no small part to Moon Jae-in's deft diplomacy, to participate in the Winter Olympics in the South during February, an event for which the Kim regime dispatched a large delegation including a cheering squad. The two Koreas also exchanged musical delegations. North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra performed in the South during the games, and a variety of South Korean artists, including a famous K-pop band, performed in Pyongyang in April. The cultural diplomacy was interspersed with a string of high-level meetings, which set the stage for the summit, although the political theatre of it was overshadowed somewhat by Kim’s unofficial visit to Beijing at the end of March.

If Pyongyang is to gain any significant economic assistance, it therefore needs to take substantive steps on denuclearisation and relations with the U.S.

What needs to happen next?

Today’s inter-Korean summit was important not just for the Korean peninsula, but also as a precursor to the meeting between Kim and Trump.

North Korea’s relations with South Korea, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, are symbiotic, linked closely by the straitjacket of the international sanctions regime. The U.S. harnessed growing international concern to steer the UN Security Council to impose unusually stringent sanctions on North Korea in September and December 2017. These penalties have been implemented with a remarkable diligence by China, and have served to dramatically reduce or even cut off some of North Korea’s key revenue streams, such as from export of natural resources and labour, as well as light manufacturing in the textiles sector. Though the South Korean government may be inclined to find ways to give North Korea relief from this state of affairs, the Moon administration is not going to sacrifice South Korea’s international reputation by engaging North Korea in defiance of that sanctions regime. If Pyongyang is to gain any significant economic assistance, it therefore needs to take substantive steps on denuclearisation and relations with the U.S., which could lead to sanctions relief. For Kim Jong-un, the first step toward a successful meeting with Trump and the potential for an exit from its economic cul-de-sac was a positive meeting with Moon Jae-in that gave concrete signals of North Korea’s intention to participate in a new process. He accomplished this today.

With Kim declaring an official end to nuclear testing last week, and the U.S. and South Korean militaries conducting joint exercises this spring on a scale that the North Korean leader was able to accept, the ingredients are in place for progress on military matters at the Kim-Trump meeting. But the risk of U.S.-North Korean failure is ever present. The Easter visit to Pyongyang by Mike Pompeo, now confirmed as secretary of state, made it clear that the Trump administration is working energetically to make the meeting happen. But one reason the summit plans could derail is the mismatch between North Korean and U.S. expectations about the results, notably the pace and scope of denuclearisation and the pace and scope of sanctions relief. Moreover, relations between China and the U.S. are febrile, not at all conducive to the necessary coordination between Washington and Beijing. Any number of elements could bring today’s inter-Korean momentum to a shuddering halt.

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