North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: Reuters via KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: Reuters via KCNA

In a dramatic turn of events, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have agreed to hold a summit meeting this April. While many experts rightly caution against excessive optimism, the summit could open a window of opportunity to take a step toward resolving the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Inter-Korean summits have historically been a core prerequisite to de-escalation on the peninsula. The first-ever summit was scheduled between the South’s Kim Yong-sam and the North’s Kim Il-sung in 1994 after the Agreed Framework, only to be canceled because of the death of the current North Korean leader’s grandfather. Temporary thaws in inter-Korean relations followed summits between the leaders of the Koreas in 2000 and 2007.

It is tempting to assume that North Korea is in such an uncontrollable crisis that if feels it must approach the South first, and therefore the Western allies should impose more pressure to precipitate regime change instead of responding to their call. However, there is no clear sign of an imminent regime collapse. Furthermore, China steadfastly disallows North Korea’s fall, as Beijing needs to maintain a buffer state against what it perceives as a US sphere of influence.

South Korea should utilize this opportunity to alleviate tension and initiate gradual denuclearization of the North. However, if Seoul plans to exploit the summit simply for symbolic agreements and domestic political gains, it would be better off not entertaining one at all. The summit will be successful only if certain conditions are met: close coordination with the US, maintenance of sanctions, and realistic goals.

Fine-tuning coordination with the US

Although US President Donald Trump readily accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a summit between the two of them in May, concerns remain in Washington. Many experts and policymakers caution against high hopes for North Korean sincerity. After all, North Korea has a notorious record of exploiting negotiations to buy time and aid to develop its weapons further.

Previous efforts in the Six Party Talks failed to produce results, only allowing the Pyongyang regime to accelerate its nuclear and missile programs. Seoul should allay Washington’s fear that it is being played by Pyongyang yet again by bolstering partnership.

Unless substantial progress is made in the negotiations, the US and South Korea should proceed with the joint military drill that was postponed ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics. These drills serve as crucial preparations for contingencies on the peninsula, ranging from landing reinforcements and securing key facilities. They also force Pyongyang to spend scarce resources and manpower as it puts its army on high alert.

Seoul should also bring up the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear program at the Moon-Kim summit, or at least establish groundwork agreements for the Trump-Kim meeting should Pyongyang insist on its traditional policy line that the nuclear issue is one between North Korea and the US, not the South.

Seoul should reassure Washington and Tokyo that there is no harm in responding to Kim’s call for dialogue; international sanction regimes will be maintained with or without the summit.

South Korea should reaffirm that its alliance with the US is the strongest bulwark against North Korean aggression, and a buttress of regional security.

It is highly likely that Pyongyang will at some point employ its traditional nationalistic strategy, stressing the idea of uriminzokkiri (between Korean people) and defying attempts by “external forces” to obstruct the peace process. For example, Kim could offer verifiable denuclearization in return for removal of US troops from South Korea. This suggestion by itself would create tense debate at least within South Korean society, if not between the US and South Korea.

Alternatively, he could offer to Trump the removal of his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in return for sanction relief, appealing to the US president’s “America First” line while leaving South Korea vulnerable to North Korean missiles.

Kim also conveyed his promise not to target the South with nuclear or conventional weapons. Some may perceive this as a meaningful sign of goodwill, but it is in fact nothing more than an extension of the North’s usual propaganda that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are against US aggression, not the South Korean people. In fact, a naive interpretation of the message creates a false perception that North Korea’s nuclear program threatens South Korea’s ally, but not South Korea itself.

This could create a dangerous sentiment among the South Korean population that the North’s nuclear program is indeed – as Pyongyang argues – attributable to the US-North Korea conflict, not its ambition to coerce Seoul. Seoul and Washington need to cooperate closely to fend off Kim’s plan to weaken the alliance.

If it does come down to a choice between Washington and Pyongyang, South Korea should recognize that the US is an indispensable ally for a middle power like itself. US troops stationed in South Korea serve as a strategic balancer in Asia; it is an unspoken secret that they are unlikely to leave the peninsula even after unification, much less denuclearization.

Concerned experts in Washington, on their part, should acknowledge that the summit could be a step toward meaningful progress in denuclearization. Hawks on Capitol Hill claim dialogue with Pyongyang grants legitimacy to a regime that violates human rights and illicitly develops nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, they overlook the fact that those exact problems can be solved only through diplomacy; at some point, the US will have to talk to the North Koreans. After all, diplomacy “requires the holding of one’s nose and dealing with adversaries.”

Maintain sanctions

In the same vein, Seoul should acknowledge that pressure from international sanctions brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table, not a sense of solidarity with the South Korean people. North Korea’s appearance at talks has always been motivated by a drastic need for sanctions relief – this time, it should be getting none without substantial concessions.

Seoul should formally proclaim that it will not reward Pyongyang for anything that does not amount to progress on denuclearization. Previous progressive governments in Seoul had a bad habit of rewarding Pyongyang’s appearance at the negotiation table with financial assistance. For example, the Kim Dae-jung administration came under fire for supplying funds to the North in return for the 2000 summit. Seoul cannot afford to repeat such a mistake; not only would it be unacceptable among South Korean constituents, but it would also send a dangerous signal that the South can be played yet again despite years of lies and betrayals.

Sanction reliefs for the sake of a summit would create holes in a well-knitted net of international sanctions that is slowly atrophying the Kim regime.

North Korea does not need an outright, official sanctions removal to reach its objective. Simply muddling and obscuring the international sanctions regime is enough for Pyongyang to buy time

In fact, Seoul should consider strengthening sanctions even at the risk of derailing the summit. “Maximum pressure” is in essence filling in the holes of the current sanctions regime, and is a continuation of denuclearization policy.

The international community is not seeing any progress on the North’s side – its “willingness” to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in return for the removal of a threat to the regime’s survival is virtually identical to previous proclamations and joint statements – other than the recent invitation to hold a summit. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to continue imposing more sanctions.

Pyongyang could bring up symbolic cards that are popular in South Korean media, such as reunions of separated families and reopening of the Geumgang Mountain tour. As politically attractive as they may be, they are not substantial enough to relieve the North from sanctions. If Seoul unilaterally makes such concessions, it will be undermining international sanctions cooperation.

North Korea will in particular seek to reopen the Kaesong Complex, which President Moon argued in favor of during his presidential campaign. In fact, Moon’s Ministry of Unification in an internal investigation questioned the legitimacy of the closure by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. While it was in operation, Seoul let more than US$100 million a year flow into North Korea through the joint venture; how could Seoul ask other nations to enforce sanctions on North Korea if itself is providing hard currency to Pyongyang?

The Kaesong Complex should remain a powerful leverage rather than a giveaway as a sign of goodwill. Even if concessions are to be made, they should be given in return for a verifiable, concrete denuclearization effort from Pyongyang. It is better not having an agreement at all than to sign a symbolic communiqué for domestic political gains.

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Perhaps even more important, Seoul should actively persuade the international community that this warming period does not nullify the international sanctions regime against North Korea. Even if Seoul and Washington continue to abide by multilateral and unilateral sanctions, North Korea’s traditional partners could exploit this timing to resume trade with Pyongyang.

In fact, China recently vetoed efforts to blacklist vessels involved in smuggling oil and coal into North Korea, clearly affected by the current peace mood.

North Korea provides de facto slave labor to about 40 countries, most notably Russia, which employs about 40,000 North Korean workers. If the warming period persists, Moscow is likely to recommend extending the two-year grace period attached to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397 passed last December that directs countries to expel all North Korean workers.

South Korea and the US should clearly reaffirm to the world that maximum pressure brought North Korea to the negotiating table and that sanctions need to remain in place to keep Kim there. In fact, Washington should pressure Beijing into using its navy to interdict vessels that are breaking UNSC resolutions and persuade Russia to expel the workers as soon as possible.

North Korea does not need an outright, official sanctions removal to reach its objective. Simply muddling and obscuring the international sanctions regime is enough for Pyongyang to buy time, and the international community should not fall into this trap.

Realistic short-term target

Given Kim Jong-un’s obsession with keeping his nukes as a “ticket to survival,” complete denuclearization in the near future is highly unlikely. However, the Moon administration should use the summit to push forward an intermediate agreement.

Again, direct discussions on the nuclear program may not happen in the meeting itself, but Moon can certainly establish a framework or preliminary exchange of bargains for Washington to continue work on. To be specific, Seoul should work toward “freeze for freeze” – suspending the joint military exercise in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear development and missile tests.

North Korea’s missile tests aren’t simply shows of force. Kim carries them out because he actually needs to test his missiles – US and South Korean intelligence agree that the North has yet to acquire a credible ICBM. Kim needs to improve his missiles’ precision continuously.

North Korea is also yet to finesse miniaturization of a nuclear warhead necessary for it to be carried on a missile. Given that Pyongyang’s decoupling strategy is based on weakening the US commitment to South Korea by threatening the US mainland, a nuclear freeze would undermine this ploy for a while and buy time for the allies.

As long as the North’s missile technology remains incomplete, so is its decoupling strategy. The freeze, however, should also include suspension of the production of fissile materials, the buildup of missile delivery systems and non-kinetic testing. Suspensions only of visible missile and nuclear tests are insufficient and not far away from previous failed agreements at the Six Party Talks.

This freeze on the other hand will require inspection of North Korean nuclear and missile sites, putting much more pressure on the regime. As the International Crisis Group recently commented, freeze-for-freeze is a face-saving short-term solution whereby no one is making unrequited concession. It will “put more time on the clock to give diplomacy a chance, rather than to the drums of war.”

Furthermore, given that this has long been China’s recommendation –Beijing calls it the “Dual Suspension” – Seoul should use this fact as leverage to pressure China into properly enforcing a mutual freeze. Beijing strongly advocated this option largely because it is one of those two-birds-with-one-stone solutions: toning down both the North’s nuclear threat and US military drills in its neighborhood.

Washington and Seoul therefore should work together to demand that Beijing impose a heavy cost on Pyongyang, including entirely cutting off oil supplies, should it break its promise.

Granted, even a freeze-for-freeze would be a difficult diplomatic challenge. However, continuation of maximum pressure and engagement with adequate “carrots” could produce results.

Joint US-Korea military drills have the effect of waging a “war of attrition” on Pyongyang, as they force the regime to use scarce oil by preparing its army for a potential invasion. Accompanied by carefully selected humanitarian aid – but strictly excluding coal and oil – Seoul and Washington could reach an agreement with Pyongyang on freeze-for-freeze.

Looking forward, should South Korea decide to relieve the North of certain sanctions, it will need to match each level of relief with corresponding concessions from Pyongyang, similar to the step-by-step reciprocity seen in the P5+1’s approach to Iran. Granted, much effort must be expended to reach this goal. Even US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a relative “dove” in the Trump administration, vehemently opposes freeze-for-freeze.

Granted, military drills are a right of sovereign states, while North Korea’s nuclear development violates international law and agreements. Nonetheless, dealing with brutal dictatorships often requires realistic compromise with ideals.

The CVID doctrine – complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korean nuclear program – is a noble cause but is unlikely to happen at one go; it will most likely follow reunification, which should be Seoul’s long-term goal.

Meanwhile, verifiable freeze-for-freeze would work to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat. From then on, Washington and Seoul could work toward a rollback – shutting down existing nuclear facilities and reducing missiles.

Pyongyang’s recent gestures inspire some optimism for this progress; the regime notably accepted the upcoming joint US-Korea military drill in April without reciprocal treatments. Nonetheless, it is too early to judge. A rollback would be a suitable starting point to consider relieving sanctions. The end goal should be complete denuclearization, but the allies will have to take intermediate steps to reaching that goal.

Keep calm

President Moon enjoys strong popular support, seldom seen in previous South Korean administrations. He certainly has unprecedented momentum to drive the domestic and foreign policies he envisages. Such a luxury provides an optimum environment to initiate a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul needs to comprehend and resolve North Korea’s strategic need to create an external enemy for internal consolidation. Kim’s slogan is Byungjin: developing nuclear weapons and the economy simultaneously. Seoul should weaken the imperative for nuclear weapons and strengthen the incentive for economic development, which will come only with structural reforms and foreign aid that can arrive only with regional stability. This would be a strenuous challenge given North Korea’s instinctive suspicion to any external influence, but is worth a try.

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Most important, Seoul should not repeat past mistakes of equating a summit with diplomatic victory; diplomatic victory will come if Moon walks out of the meeting with meaningful agreements. While Moon himself wisely remains cautious, his progressive supporters are prematurely applauding the “diplomatic ingenuity” that could lead to “complete denuclearization and even unification.”

South Korea is certainly in the driver’s seat, but it is no Michael Schumacher. Although the Moon administration showed extraordinary diplomatic dexterity in arranging two historic summits, inordinate hopes are unhelpful. Both the Blue House and the White House need to lower the bar of expectations so that gradual stages of denuclearization will be perceived as a partial success or at least a work in progress, not failure.

If the summits are perceived as total failures despite substantial results, the drums of war will get needlessly louder. At the same time, should North Korea demand disproportionate concessions such as the removal of American troops, Moon should be ready to walk out of the meeting having declined them, even at the risk of bringing back confrontation to the peninsula.

South Korea should understand the value of the leverage it holds; after all, the reclusive regime held out an olive branch out of desperation. Previous summits made the nuclear crisis worse partly because Seoul misjudged Pyongyang’s intentions. It believed sanctions relief could induce goodwill on the part of North Korea, thereby relying more on persuasion than coercion.

There may lie a thin line between appeasement and negotiation, but it’s something Moon should constantly watch out for.

Taehwa Hong is an international relations student at Stanford University. His work has been featured in YaleGlobal Online, The Business Times, The Jakarta Post, The Huffington Post and WorldPost. His research focuses on East Asia and the Middle East.

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