Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia

28 April 2018

In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts help make sense of the speculation and the spectacle as North and South Korean leaders meet for the first time in 65 years.

From North Korean nuclear tests to ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric from the US President, 2017 was a year of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. 2018, by contrast, has seen the two Koreas make substantial steps towards rapprochement, a process beginning with North Korea participating alongside the South at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in January.

On 27 April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, in the first such meeting between Korean leaders in 65 years. What will the talks mean for the future of the Korean Peninsula, and how will they bear on a possible Trump-Kim summit to come? We asked the experts to help us read between the lines of this historic event.

“The optics of the Inter-Korean Summit astonished most onlookers, especially the affectionate hand-shake between the two Korean leaders at the demarcation line between the North and the South at Panmunjom.

“It was made possible by the maximum pressure campaign lead by the US which mobilised crucial stakeholders such as China to more fully enforce sanctions against the North. At the same time, President Moon’s openness to re-engagement with the North has come at a time when the young North Korean leader feels strong enough domestically and internationally vis-à-vis the consolidation of his strategy nuclear deterrent to pursue a different kind of inter-Korean relationship.

“The immediate result of the Summit has been the Panmunjom Declaration. Signed by both leaders, the Declaration charts out a future of mutual cooperation and an intensification of exchanges to consolidate trust, mutual understanding and a convergence in socio-economic development.

“While these pledges are important in the peace building process, forging a sustainable peace on the peninsula will require both denuclearisation and demilitarisation. This necessarily includes the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons, short, mid and long-range missile systems as well as submarine launch platforms. The US and allies will expect no less. Kim has not committed to working towards those conditions suggesting that Pyongyang is still anxious about regime survival.

“The Inter-Korean Summit has set a positive mood for a subsequent tête-à-tête between Trump and Kim in early June. Nevertheless, Trump’s domestic political turmoil and up coming mid-term elections may inject another degree of uncertainty in the Trump-Kim Summit making compromise on security an arduous process.”

“The appearance of a large map of Korea formed with white flowers on the lawn of Seoul City Hall in recent weeks, alongside a banner of the unification flag transposed on two clasped hands, hinted at the outpouring of sentimental affection that would mark the summit on Friday.

“Even the more hardened witness couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of Moon and Kim stepping back and forth over the military demarcation line, hand in hand, on Friday morning. The joint declaration signed that evening makes a number of significant claims, including seeking to bring a formal end to the Korean conflict this year.

“However, North Korea’s long history of making promises and backing out makes many rightly question the declaration’s value. For all the excitement and sentimentality, it is important to remember that Kim presides over a regime that has, in very recent times, done everything in its power to build a nuclear weapons system; mounted a highly sophisticated cyber-attack to steal millions via the international banking system; and continued to oppress and exact violence of untold scale on its own people as a means to retain absolute power.

“Human rights groups campaigned hard ahead of the summit to have human rights issues on the agenda for the talks, despite knowing it would be unlikely. The pledge to resume inter-Korean family reunions on Liberation Day in August is a pleasing development, but the raising of “hard” questions, like a clear roadmap for denuclearisation and substantive commitment to improving human rights will be the true test of both the relationship, and Kim’s commitment to engagement.

“This dialogue is important and welcome, but the real “spring” in North Korea won’t come as long as the regime’s (and Kim’s personal) security rest on both its nuclear capacity and ruling its people with an iron fist.”

The historic Inter-Korean Summit

“On Friday 27 April, 2018, the leaders of North and South Korea held a historic summit meeting—the first in over a decade, and the third since the Korean War. This occasion was particularly momentous given that it signified a de-escalation of the tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program, which had mounted to an unprecedented degree over the past year.

“The decision to convene the summit marked the culmination of four months of inter-Korean rapprochement, which was characterised by joint-participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, performances by South Korean popstars in North Korea, and numerous diplomatic overtures between the Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in.

“The world watched in awe as media outlets circulated images of the two leaders holding hands, embracing one another, and planting a tree on the demilitarised zone. These gestures were nothing short of remarkable in light of the scale of inter-Korean tensions in 2017, and the tragic history of conflict on the Korean peninsula. More significant than these symbolic acts, however, were the concrete outcomes of the summit. The two sides signed an agreement in which they pledged to pursue the “common goal” of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. While this will inevitably be a complex and long-term process, this pledge constitutes the first important step toward this end.

“The positive outcome of the summit was partially enabled by the fact that South Korea’s President Moon has been very open to engaging North Korea diplomatically. We have more reason to be concerned about the potential outcomes of the upcoming US-North Korea summit. Indeed, Trump has a very different negotiating style to Moon, and is more likely to pursue immediate gains on the denuclearisation front.”

Russia’s perspective

“The Moon-Kim summit is already being perceived as historic. But the question is, what will be left after the summit when the excitement settles and pragmatism takes over?

“Russia’s view of the summit is also worth attention. Russia has historically maintained relationships with both Koreas and has done so quite successfully.

“Russia’s view of the Summit is positive, although Russia favours keeping the current status quo of the peaceful coexistence of the divided Korea. The status quo potentially opens up the possibility for Russia to run pipelines throughout the peninsula that would be beneficial for its Pivot to Asia policy. Any conflict in Korea could create a humanitarian catastrophe at Russia’s Far East borders, which are quite vulnerable. However, the current status of sanctioned North Korea is an obstacle to engage with it proactively whether for Russia, South Korea, or anyone else. Yet, limited economic possibilities might give Russia options for various diplomatic interactions with North Korea through science, culture, sport, tourism, etc.

“In this regard, Russia might be expected to increase its role in North Korea using diplomatic tools in generating soft power. However, there is no indication that Russia’s geopolitical influence will grow, leaving ample room for major powers of China and the US to manoeuvre into East Asia and shape the region in ways they might want. Even though the role of South Korea in organising the summit and making it significant and memorable is fully recognised, the real influence of South Korea as a middle power regional geopolitical player is yet to be questioned.”

“While the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade is good news for short term stability on the Korean peninsula, it is a sideshow to the coming main Trump-Kim meeting.

“Here, we must ask first: Is North Korea willing to negotiate away the nuclear arsenal that it has taken decades to painfully develop? Second, would the United States accept anything short of this? And third – would South Korea?

“To the extent that the answers to the first two questions turn out to be no, expect a rapid deterioration on the Korean peninsula, the likelihood of further weapons tests and possibly war scares. If the answer to the third question is yes, expect the US-South Korean alliance to be faced with its greatest challenge yet.”

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