Ceremony and symbols were on full display last Friday at the third inter-Korean summit. Pre-modern royal guards and a post-modern take on the traditional Korean song Arirang; a conference table measuring precisely 2018mm to mark the year; a mosaic of the famously beautiful Mt Kumgang.
The pine tree the two leaders planted together was nourished with soil from the highest mountains in North and South Korea, Paektu and Halla respectively, and water from the Han and Taedong rivers that run through the two Korean capitals.
No stone was left unturned in the search for meaning.
Though the symbolism was the most notable feature of the day’s events, the summit was not without substance. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in spent 40 minutes in private discussion in the afternoon.
Senior officials accompanying the leaders took the opportunity to discuss their individual remits. And, of course, the two sides issued the “Panmunjom Declaration for Korean Peninsula Peace, Prosperity and Unification” right on time – mostly pre-scripted – at 18:00 local time.
The positive side
The declaration contains several concrete steps that, notwithstanding an absence of frameworks for implementation, could in principle evolve into transformative shifts in inter-Korean relations.
The most significant are reaffirming plans for regular communication through a dedicated phone line linking the two leaders, the creation of a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong to facilitate consultation between governments and exchanges between people, and the launching of three- and four-party talks with the US and/or China, to bring about an end to the Korean War and institute a “peace system” on the Korean peninsula.
News that Moon will visit Pyongyang in the autumn also reflects the welcome intention to keep moving relations in a positive direction and to transcend the insubstantial showmanship of summits in 2000 and 2007, which came at the very end of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.
The negative side
But substance was limited in scope. The declaration does not make much more than a passing mention of denuclearization. It does not mention missiles at all.
This is because North Korea is comfortable discussing economic, social and political ties with the South, but does not believe nuclear and missile questions are apt for inter-Korean discussion. It regards them as matters for talks with the US.
The two leaders know very well – indeed, Kim admitted as much – that talk is cheap. Failure to make good on so many past summit promises has contributed a great deal to the pervasive mistrust and cynicism many in South Korea feel toward the North – and, in all likelihood, vice versa.
The 2007 inter-Korean summit resulted in a statement that included language on actively pursuing inter-Korean dialogue, terminating military hostilities, connecting road and rail links and actively expanding joint economic projects, to say nothing of implementing Six-Party Talks agreements on denuclearization. It sounded grand – but very little came of any of it. The same could all too easily happen again.
Powers beyond their control
One thing is for sure: For all the talk of Koreans seizing control of their own destinies, their fates are subject to powers beyond the peninsula.
As Kim’s late-March dash to Beijing showed, China is determined to retain a voice going forward. Kim and Moon appear to recognize that, for all their respective sources of animosity with Beijing, China must be involved. There is no getting away from the international nature of the Korean peninsula problem.
And this time around, North Korea will find it much harder than ever to decouple its relations with South Korea on the one hand and the United States on the other. The two relationships are now much too intimately linked.
The US harnessed growing international concern to steer the UN Security Council to impose wide-ranging sanctions on North Korea in September and December 2017. These have been implemented with an unusual degree of diligence by China, which has served to dramatically reduce or even halt some of North Korea’s key revenue streams, such as from exports of natural resources and labor, as well as light manufacturing in the textiles sector.
Though the current South Korean government may be inclined to find ways to give North Korea relief from this state of affairs, it is held in check by those sanctions. South Korea is simply not willing or able to allow its firms to get involved in the North Korean economy if doing so would come at the expense of South Korea’s international good standing.
If Pyongyang is to gain consequential economic assistance, it will thus need to take positive steps on denuclearization and improve relations with the United States, such that Seoul can sign off on the inter-Korean investments it has under consideration.
For those Koreans – and there are plenty – who are tired of foreign interference in peninsula affairs, all of this may chafe. For proponents of the necessity of North Korea’s denuclearization, it is a welcome moment of symbiosis.
Either way, there is no denying that the stage is set for multilateral dialogue as spring turns to summer. The inter-Korean meeting also makes the bilateral meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim more likely to take place – though of course it does not guarantee its success.
The spontaneous applause of local journalists as Kim and Moon shook hands across the line that has divided North and South for seven decades only served to highlight the depth of sentiment that underpins every inter-Korean reconciliation attempt.
Both sides played on that sentiment endlessly during the summit, but symbolism will not indefinitely disguise the limitations of the bilateral format when the issues at hand are international, and all the more complex for it.
Whatever it is that the two Koreas hope to do, they cannot do it alone.
Christopher Green is Senior Advisor for the Korean Peninsula at International Crisis Group. He is a researcher in Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he works on the political and historical sociology of North Korea and has published widely on North Korean politics, economy, ideology and PRC foreign policy vis-a-vis the DPRK. He is the former Manager of International Affairs for Daily NK, and translator of the memoir of senior North Korean defector, Hwang Jang-yop.