The recent developments taking place in the Korean Peninsula in breath-taking rapidity after a spell of threats and counter-threats by the US and North Korea to annihilate each other and put US’ Asian allies in a Sea of Fire baffles not only security analysts but also some of those engaged in the art of diplomacy. The table seems to have turned towards peace in the past few months after years of escalatory tensions, nuclear tests, missile launches, even to the tune of the spectre of a possible nuclear holocaust. All these became possible after a liberal assumed the Presidency in South Korea in 2017 with single-minded determination to normalise ties with the North Korean brethren, bury the past and open a new chapter in the Korean Peninsula. Not only South Korean President Moon Jae-in made it possible for a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in April, but met a second time soon to take the dialogue further. Now widening the opening further of the new era of peace-making in the Korean Peninsula, the third inter-Korean summit is scheduled to take place on September 18-20, 2018 at Pyeongyang in North Korea.
This inter-Korean bonhomie set the stage for a summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in June 2018 in Singapore. Though there are controversies over the outcome of the Singapore summit on the issue of who conceded how much and on what terms, there are now talks for a possible second Trump-Kim summit soon, on which there is no clarity at the moment. The fact that two unpredictable leaders engaging but with no predictable outcomes on the issue of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula itself was a significant development. Each side made claims that success was achieved but such assertions proved to be mere will-o-the-wisp, at least for now. Suggestions even surfaced that the sole credit ought to go to Trump to make him a suitable candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize. The truism, however, is that if at all a Nobel Prize is to be awarded on the peace initiatives, Moon Jae-in is a more suitable candidate to deserve such honour, not Trump.
So, what can one expect from a third Moon-Kim summit on 18-20 September? Standing committed to his resolve to solve the Korean Peninsula issue, Moon urged North Korea and the US to “make bold decisions” ahead of the summit with Kim Jung-un to break a deepening diplomatic impasse over North’s nuclear ambitions, offering himself to be the negotiator. The fact remains that Moon is striving hard and committed to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula and expects his forthcoming summit with Kim leading to another “big step” towards denuclearization. Coming at a crucial moment in the overall diplomacy that is stuck amid recriminations between Washington and Pyongyang on how to follow through on vows made at the summit in Singapore last June, the significance of Moon’s resolve to realise his aim of riding the North of its nuclear weapons is laudable. Dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the sole objective of President Trump and he seems determined to achieve this before his term ends. Such a stance could be laudable but the path to achieve this is not that simple and even be perilous.
As the main negotiator behind the scene, Moon expects that while Pyongyang carries out dismantling of its nuclear installation, Washington must take a “corresponding step”, which will facilitate removal of deep-rooted mutual distrust accumulated during the 70 years of hostile relations. Though Pyongyang has dismantled it’s nuclear and rocket engine testing sites following Moon-Kim and Trump-Kim summits, Washington demands more serious steps, which irks Pyongyang. Moon has noted that Kim has demanded that his efforts must be reciprocated by corresponding US measures such as a joint declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon’s expectations of “genuine talks” between Trump and Kim look achievable with the news that a second possible Trump-Kim summit is likely any time soon. Even Steve Biegun, the new US special envoy on North Korea, stressed the need to maintain nuclear diplomacy during his meeting with South Korean envoy Lee Do-hoon.
That Moon has faith in Trump is a tremendous thing if the commitment for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula remains on track. As per reports, Kim sent a request to Trump for a second meeting to follow up their June summit and the credit must go for this to Moon for his persuasive efforts and perseverance to achieve the objective. Yet, it remains unclear if the deadlocked nuclear diplomacy is near resolution. It may be recalled that in the June summit, Kim made vague disarmament pledges without revealing a detailed road map or timetable for his denuclearization process, which gave room for analysts to say the promises were mere pompous bereft of any seriousness.
While interacting with the media on September 13 prior to the Moon-Kim summit, the South Korean ambassador to India Shin Bongkil exulted optimism and observed that the Panmunjom declaration is being implemented in letter and spirit by both the Koreas. In particular, the ambassador mentioned the significance of both sides pushing to open a liaison office at a North Korean border city as part of cooperation between the rivals ahead of the summit. Both sides also held military talks with issues to ease tensions along their border, such as disarming a jointly controlled area at Panmunjom, removing front-line guard posts and conducting joint searches for soldiers missing from the Korean War. Ways to build mutual trust and prevent armed clashes between the two militaries is now a priority for both. The ambassador was also euphoric that Pyongyang did not display any long range missiles in the military parade and focused on conventional arms, peace and economic development as it marked the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding.
Though the reduced display compared to past three years pleased Trump, who hailed it as a “big and very positive statement from North Korea” and its “commitment to denuclearize” based on the announcement made during the Singapore summit, Kim expects that the US takes corresponding steps to promote the political resolution process for the peninsula issue.
Notwithstanding the exuberance of such optimism, doubts remain on the ways to end the North’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. Following the first two summits between Moon and Kim, even when the dates for the third summit were announced, speculations abound if some headway could be expected on a possible peace declaration and cooperation on joint economic and infrastructure projects. Such optimism stems from Kim’s announcement to achieve the goal of denuclearization at the landmark summit in June in Singapore with Trump. It remains doubtful, however, if the trust deficit between the two Koreas has been bridged as opinions differ on who gained or conceded how much as there was a bit of lack of transparency in the discussion. Pyongyang is yet to agree to a timeline for eliminating its nuclear arsenal or to disclose its size, which US estimates have put at between 30 and 60 warheads.
An ever optimist Moon is likely to visit Washington to brief Trump after what would transpire during his summit with Kim and plan how to work the next step. Earlier, Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of a North Korean committee aiming for the “peaceful reunification” of the peninsula, told his counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, stressing that it is important to clear “obstacles” preventing inter-Korean relations from moving forward. Ri observed: “If the issues that were raised at the talks aren’t resolved, unexpected problems could emerge and the issues that are already on the schedule may face difficulties”. If one reads carefully the statement, it is clear that it is not that easy to arrive at a consensus to resolve the denuclearisation issue so quickly.
Besides the denuclearisation issue which is at the top on the table, there are some bilateral issues that could confront Moon and Kim at the summit. One is, North Korea is angered of South Korea’s alleged complicity in receiving a dozen North Korean restaurant workers who came via China in 2016. Pyongyang alleges that they were abducted by the South and therefore demands that they should be returned. This case could create obstacle to the reunion of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War. Though both sides expressed their commitments to resolve the issue on humanitarian issue and/or for the development of inter-Korean relations, and may look easy on the surface, the truism is the issue is complicated.
Another intricate issue that both Moon and Kim could face is how to go forward with their commitment agreed during their first summit in April to declare an end to the Korean War together with the US. The problem is Washington says this could only be possible after the North abandons its nuclear program.
Moon has also other ideas to help the North but faces hurdles. South Korea hopes to restart efforts on a cross-peninsula railway and the Kaesong Industrial Complex but is cautious about major projects due to international sanctions chiefly engineered by Washington over the North’s nuclear and missile programs. A liaison office has been opened by the both sides, which they aim to serve as the cradle for the co-prosperity of the peninsula. Washington’s inflexible position constraints Moon to do what he desires to improve relations with the North. Pyongyang appreciates Moon’s dilemma and blames Washington for continuing with the sanctions despite that it has made goodwill gestures, including a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, dismantled a nuclear site, and returned remains of some US soldiers in the Korean War. It is for this reason Kim expects Moon to play a bridging role in expectation of the US speed up progress in declaring an end to the war officially. According to Christopher Green, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, Kim is expected to try increasing pressure on the South to deliver on economic promises made at the April summit, besides persuading Trump to ease sanctions.
Earlier, a five-member South Korean delegation led by Moon’s top security advisor Chung Eui-yong, visited Pyongyang as a part of preparation for the summit, during which the inter-Korean summit dates were finalised. The meeting was significant as it came amid the backdrop of Trump’s abrupt cancellation of a trip to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as the White House felt Pyongyang had not made sufficient progress towards denuclearisation. Chung’s visit was therefore significant as it aimed at establishing permanent peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and practical measures of denuclearisation. Moon’s optimism could be deciphered from what Chung remarked, when he said: “Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his commitment for complete denuclearisation of Korean peninsula, and expressed his willingness for close cooperation not only with South Korea but also with the United States in that regard”. If Chung’s claim of Kim having observed his wish to denuclearise and end hostilities with Washington before 2021 and that his faith in Trump remaining “unchanged” is to be believed, one can see sincerity in Kim’s efforts to make peace not only with the US but also with the world.
Thus it transpires that despite diplomatic difficulties between Pyongyang and Washington, Seoul continues to encourage both parties to proceed with peace and denuclearisation processes. Despite Moon’s sincere efforts, Kim’s commitment to denuclearisation faces scepticism as there is no sign of any written commitments. Kim seems to have consciously avoided any written or legal commitments to demonstrate its commitments for denuclearisation, though there is a clear shift from the “fire and fury” rhetoric that heightened tensions to dangerous levels not long ago. Raising hopes sky high that denuclearisation is possible in the short term looks premature at the moment. If Trump senses that there is no possibility of a breakthrough, he might be inclined to look more seriously towards China seeking intervention. Given that Kim is taking baby steps, the best that could be expected is a working relationship between the US and North Korea with little possibility of achieving what the US tried to stick earlier to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID).
At the moment, North Korea is not confident about its security, which is why nuclear as an option is unlikely to be surrendered. But if the US assures the North security guarantee, and the North in turn commits to arms control, arms reduction and denuclearisation, there could be a number of opportunities on the table for North Korea.
Another sticking point is the signing of a peace treaty between the US and the North. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically still at war. If President Moon succeeds in convincing Trump to sign a peace treaty, that could be the biggest feature in his cap. Late this month, September, Moon is likely to seek a trilateral summit at the United Nations General Assembly, or even a four-nation meeting that includes China, to declare a formal end to the conflict. If this succeeds, one can expect the prospect of inching closer towards achieving denuclearisation could be a near possibility. At the moment, a UN announcement does not look a possibility as there could be larger implication: could tantamount to all sides “agreeing that the war was over”. If Kim Jung-un does not demonstrate to the world that he has taken concrete steps towards denuclearisation, Washington is unlikely to change track, leaving the status quo that Pyongyang is not expected to actually do it. If that happens, Moon would be the most frustrated man. Such a scenario leaves his statesmanship to crucial test and he needs backing and support from all stakeholders.