There was bonhomie aplenty on display this morning as South Korean President Moon Jae-in touched down at Pyongyang airport, to be greeted on the tarmac with an embrace from a beaming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju, marching soldiers and cheering citizens were also on hand to greet Moon, his wife and a South Korean delegation which flew into Pyongyang this morning for a two-night, three-day summit with Kim in the North Korean capital.
Moon hopes the pow-wow will reduce cross-border tensions, break the deadlock in denuclearization talks between the US and Kim’s hardline, heavily sanctioned state.
Discussions are also expected to extend to a possible declaration to end the Korean War – which started with a North Korean invasion in 1950 and ended uneasily with an armistice in 1953. However, this declaration will not be an actual peace treaty to replace the armistice: for that, the United States and probably China – both armistice signatories – would have to be parties.
Although North Korea has been strongly requesting such a declaration in official statements, and South Korea is also positive toward it, Washington, frustrated by the lack of progress on North Korean denuclearization, has been lukewarm.
Moon said Monday that his meeting with Kim – which will be their third, following two meetings in the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, and the fifth inter-Korean summit, historically – has two aims.
“The first is to remove the tension and possibility of armed conflicts caused by the military confrontation between the South and the North, and to reduce fears of war,” he said at a cabinet meeting on Monday, according to Yonhap news agency. “The second is to promote US-North Korea talks aimed at denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Moon’s administration has repeatedly emphasized that Moon can play the role of a trusted go-between between Pyongyang and Washington.
“I plan to hold candid talks with Chairman Kim Jong Un on where we can find an intersecting point between the United States’ call for denuclearization steps and the North’s demand for corresponding steps to guarantee its security and end the hostile relationship,” Moon said Monday.
Moon also expressed his wish for a second US-North Korea summit., following their historical meeting in Singapore in June between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
A second summit is something Washington has revealed it is working on arranging.
In South Korea, excitement surrounding inter-Korean interactions has dropped since early this year. There was enormous public fascination with the North Korean delegations that visited the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, but reaction to the inter-Korean team fielded at last month’s Jakarta-Palembang Asia Games proved subdued.
Still, in recognition of the importance of this summit, anticipation for the trip is high. Seoul is plastered with posters emblazoned with the summit slogan, “Peace: A New Future,” and giant LED screens have been set up in the city’s central plaza to relay footage of the events.
Moon’s delegation for the two-night, three-day visit includes not just senior ministers, but also the heads of leading South Korean conglomerates, and is accompanied by a press pool. Moon and Kim get right down to business, holding their first talks after Moon’s arrival and lunch. A press conference may follow on Wednesday.
Reducing tensions, ending Korean War?
There are sound grounds for making inter-Korean tension reduction a priority, argued academic Moon Chung-in, a senior South Korean presidential advisor and member of today’s delegation, who has been engaged in inter-Korean dialog since the 1990s.
“Some say denuclearization is more important than conventional military tension reductions and conventional arms reductions, but President Moon has a very strong view: It is inconceivable for any country to use nuclear weapons because of mutually assured destruction,” Moon said in a pre-summit briefing to foreign reporters last week. “But if there is a clash along the DMZ or the [Yellow Sea] it can end up as an escalation – an uncontrollable escalation. So for President Moon, it is very important to come up with [moves for the] prevention of accidental conflict.”
Such moves could include confidence-building measures along both the DMZ and the disputed, flashpoint Yellow Sea maritime border, including the pullback of arms and units.
Yet questions hang over the validity of the “end of war” declaration between the two Koreas may generate at the summit. Firstly: None of the key states that fought in the Korean War – the two Koreas, China and the United States – actually declared war upon one another. Secondly: The piece of paper will offer limited, if any, enforceability.
“Nowadays, international political agreements are more easily broken than ever before, but this declaration is going to be welcomed by the North Koreans who, so far, have not given any kind of irreversible concessions on any significant issues,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said. “It will be an exchange of a symbolic action for a symbolic action. It is all words, but little deeds.”
Any such agreement needs to be conditional, urged Euan Graham, a North Korea watcher at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, given that the agreement would provide Pyongyang with a rationale for the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. “It needs to be accepted only on the basis of strict conditionality, not a reward dangled up front,” Graham said.
And even if Kim negotiates tension reductions issues and an end-of-war declaration with Moon, a key difficulty facing South Korea’s leader is that he is not Pyongyang’s priority counterparty.
“The script is still unfolding on what Kim Jong Un wants – which is drawing the US into some sort of strategic relationship; that is the ultimate goal for the North,” said Graham. “The frustration for the South is that they are a stepping stone, not a final destination.”
Middle-man in denuclearization
On denuclearization, the challenge facing Moon is steep, given the policy gaps dividing the US and North Korea.
While Washington, strongly buttressed by Tokyo, sees denuclearization as the prerequisite for improved relations and easing of sanctions, Pyongyang – backed by Beijing and Moscow – sees a phased, reciprocal process. Seoul seeks to play a middle-man role between the two adversaries.
“Moon wants to continue political momentum to somehow pressure the US to accept the terms of negotiations put forward by North Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “North Korea is pursuing an end-of-war declaration, but the US wants the process to start with North Korea providing a very clear message that it will denuclearize by producing a list.”
The list the US seeks, which it considers the starting point of a credible North Korean denuclearization process, is an accounting of the country’s nuclear weapons, related materials and research, production and storage facilities. Lankov doubts that any such detailed list will be offered: It would provide a potential “target list for the US Air Force,” he suggested.
Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, speaking at the Seoul Defense Dialog last week, talked of the “shear enormity of the denuclearization challenge,” as well as the differences dividing the two sides.
“Denuclearization is both a process and an outcome,” he said. “The US and North Korean have different ideas of what the process ought to entail and what the outcome will look like.”
“North Korean denuclearization means what? Declaration, inspections, verification and dismantlement,” added presidential advisor Moon. “[North Korea] has a lot of obligations, and the US has a lot.”
Against this backdrop of steep challenge, academic Moon said that he hopes for a “bold step” from Kim. And there are glimmers of hope.
“I see the chances are very, very high,” Moon, who has been engaged in inter-Korean dialog since the 1990s said, when asked of the possibility of a possible outcome to the long-simmering Korean nuclear crisis. “This North Korea nuclear issue is not perennial! I believe we have a chance, I believe [Kim] is really committed to denuclearize. Now we are struggling with the terms.”
While some experts, such as Lankov, believe that North Korea is motivated to drag out the negotiating process to wait out the unpredictable Trump administration, other experts suggest the opposite.
“The North Koreans have identified Trump as a unique opportunity to further relations with the US and a leader-to-leader relationship is the best means of employing that,” said Graham of the Lowy Institute. “Given that Trump’s term in office is not guaranteed, the impetus to push the process may come from North Korea – it may be the best chance they will get.”