Against the background of fading hopes on denuclearization, South Korea’s presidential office, the Blue House, announced today that President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold a summit on 18-20 September in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.
Moreover, the two states, which are technically still at war, agreed to open a joint liaison office before the summit. With Pyongyang and Seoul not recognizing each other diplomatically, no such office exists, or has existed.
“The South and North agreed to hold an inter-Korean summit September 18-20, three days and two nights, in Pyongyang, and to hold a high-ranking working-level meeting at Panmunjom early next week to discuss protocol, security, communications and media coverage as part of preparations for the summit,” Chung Eui-yong, Seoul’s National Security adviser, said in a briefing, according to a note released to foreign reporters by the Blue House.
Chung was speaking after he and his delegation had just returned from a one-day trip to Pyongyang as personal envoys of Moon.
It will be the third summit between Kim and Moon since their April meeting on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone in the Panmunjom, and their second meeting held on the north Korean side of the truce village. It will be the fifth inter-Korean summit. The late South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun both met with the late Kim Jong-il – but only one time each.
“It was also agreed that South and North would open a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides, before the summit,” Chung added.
A Blue House official confirmed that Chung’s reference was for a full-time liaison office between the two Koreas. According to the declaration after the Panmunjom summit, this office will be established in the North Korean city of Kaesong, which is directly north of Seoul and lies just over the DMZ.
If this office does indeed open in Kaesong in the coming days – the site of a joint, inter-Korean industrial complex which was shuttered by the South in 2016 amid military tensions – it will be historic.
No physical office, staffed by full-time representatives of both governments tasked with liaising between the two capitals, has existed since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
While progress on the establishment of this office has been slow, and questions have hovered on whether related equipment from the South might breach UN sanctions, its imminent opening indicates an acceleration of inter-Korean relations. Those relations are already marked by increased cross border dialog, sport and cultural exchanges, and plans to undertake joint environmental and academic projects.
In Pyongyang, Chung and his delegation had met Kim and his powerful aide Kim Yong Chol, a former espionage general who has emerged this year as apparently the leader’s closest adviser on strategic and diplomatic issues.
“In Pyongyang, we had extensive discussions with the North Korean side on issues ranging from the development of inter-Korean relations to denuclearization and the settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Chung said.
He also made it clear that he would coordinate with the United States.
“We will brief the countries concerned, including the United States, with the results of the visit by the special envoys to the North and closely work together with them,” Chung said, adding that he would convey a special message from Kim to Trump.
A summit in the autumn in Pyongyang had been one of the agreements reached at the April summit in Panmunjom. There has been intense speculation in South Korea over the dates of the upcoming summit, given that 9 Sept. is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s foundation day.
It is expected to be marked by a massive military parade, attended by senior Chinese officials, possibly accompanied by an honor guard of Peoples Liberation Army troops. It would not be politically feasible for a president of South Korea – a competing state, which fought a devastating defensive war against North Korean and Chinese forces from 1950-53 – to arrive on or close to that day.
Another factor pressuring dates is the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, which begins on 18 September, with the general debate beginning on 26 September. Both Moon and US President Donald Trump will be attending the session and according to US press reports, the two will meet on the sidelines of the assembly.
Following Kim’s “charm offensive” this year, including his summits with Moon, with Trump and with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there has been widespread anticipation of a process to begin denuclearization of North Korea, to lower regional tensions – even, perhaps, to take tentative steps to welcome North Korea into the global economy and community of nations.
However, these hopes are fading as the two key parties, Pyongyang and Washington, remain divided over denuclearization. Meanwhile, there are fears that South Korea’s moves to create a “peace regime” on the peninsula and intensify cross-border relations may clash with Washington’s main priority.
According to Chung, the South Korean envoys discussed a range of issues with the Northern leadership – the implementation of the April Panmunjom Declaration; military talks to ease tensions; the establishment of a joint liaison office prior to the summit. However, the key issue – upon which all else hinges – is denuclearization, a process which few experts believe is feasible.
Moon won the support of Trump for his efforts at inter-Korean engagement earlier this year, and now seeks to play an intermediary role. But given the gloom currently hanging over denuclearization, in contrast to the air of optimism in the first half of the year, this will be a challenging task.
“South Korea claims it is a broker or a facilitator between North Korea and the US,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert and research fellow at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. “It was believed that the North Korea-US summit was supported by South Korean efforts, but it is now a standoff, so South Korea is trying to revive [relations]. That is the role of South Korea.”
Although North Korea has made a number of related concessions this year, including blowing up elements of its Punggye-ri test site and starting the dismantling of a rocket engine test site facility, reports and satellite imagery indicate that work continues at major missile and nuclear facilities.
Most importantly, there has been no mutually-agreed process with Washington. From the US perspective, the very start point of denuclearization – the handing over by the North Koreans of a list of nuclear assets and facilities – has not yet been reached.
Trump cancelled the last trip to North Korea by his envoy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, citing the lack of progress on denuclearization.
Meanwhile, North Korea complains that the United States is not acting in good faith, following the June Singapore summit between Kim and Trump. Pyongyang, via state media and official statements, is currently pushing for a peace treaty to end the Korean War, an idea to which the South Korean side is sympathetic. However, the US has remained lukewarm.
One reason is that that Washington may see the peace treaty as leverage which it is not yet ready to use. Another reason may be the subsequent dismantlement of oversight mechanisms.
An informed source – who spoke off the record as he did not have permission to speak to media – told Asia Times that a peace treaty would likely include the dismantling of the UN Command’s Military Armistice Commission, which oversees the terms of the 1953 armistice.
Currently, that body is headed by a US general, but there is no guarantee that any subsequent body would be, the source said.
Last week, in an unusual and murky episode, the UN Command refused permission for a South Korean train to proceed into the North. The train was reportedly on a mission to investigate the state of the North Korean rail network. Earlier, in a high-profile speech in August, Moon proposed to relink inter-Korean rail connections, but it is not clear if this could be done without breaching sanctions.
The danger is that Washington may be uncomfortable with the speed of inter-Korean rapprochement being pursued by Seoul. “This is what the US has been saying, recently,” Choi said.
Even the flagship liaison office may not produce deliverables. “They can have it, but it depends on what they do with it,” said Dan Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “It is a necessary condition for cooperation, but not sufficient in itself.”
As for Moon’s intermediary role in Pyongyang, Pinkston said, “he is in a difficult position,” in Pyongyang. “I am skeptical” that he can win a breakthrough.