The Moon-Kim Summit in North Korea made some modest but significant achievements. The two leaders seemed surprisingly at ease with each other. How the meeting is assessed depends very much on the mind-set of the assessor, and what it achieves will depend very much on what the principals really want.
The just-concluded Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang was marked by surprisingly warm displays of friendship between the two leaders, and a major effort by the hosts to make the visit a success, including an excursion by air to the legendary Mount Paektu on the border with China. Outcomes included a plan for Kim to visit Seoul by the end of the year, plans to start work to connect the two halves of Korea by road and rail, again by the end of the year, and an agreement between the two countries’ militaries described by media in the South as a “de facto non-aggression pact”. Moon was accompanied by some very senior South Korean businessmen, and there was discussion of steps towards resumed economic relations, with the North proposing as a beginning the re-start of cooperation on tourism at Mt. Kumgang, and in the presently shut-down joint manufacturing area on the border.
In the crucial area of nuclear and missile disarmament North Korea has agreed to “experts from related countries’ supervising the dismantling of the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site near the Chinese border, and “expressed its willingness to continue taking additional steps, such as permanent shut-down of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, should the US take corresponding measures”.
In addition, Moon was given the opportunity to address a very large rally, said to be of as many as 150,000 people. In the course of his speech, said to be well received, he spoke of the essential unity of the people of the two Koreas, and called for peace and denuclearisation, quoting Kim’s public remarks to this effect. A member of Moon’s delegation, an influential South Korean academic, thought this was in fact the most important event of the whole visit – for a North Korean audience to hear such a message from the leader of the South, quoting their own leader. It seems clear that a prime goal for Moon is ending the still existing state of war, aiming for an “end of war declaration” within the year.
What do all these plans and aspirations amount to? It depends of your point of view. Sceptics can easily say that it’s just more North Korean trickery and procrastination, seeking to split South Korea from the United States, break the sanctions, and get external help for its new stated priority, the economy, in return for not much.
United States reactions so far however indicate that there may be more in motion. President Trump has described the summit’s outcomes as “exciting”. Secretary Pompeo has said negotiations with North Korea will resume, including between him and the North Korean Foreign Minister at the United Nations in New York this week. He’s also said that the goal is denuclearisation by the beginning of 2021, i.e. a period two years longer than the initial 12 months quite unrealistically demanded by the United States. It’s clear too, from remarks by the State Department spokesperson about US and IAEA observers at the decommissioning of Yongbyon, that the United States was fully aware in advance of likely items for discussion and possible offers and outcomes. Indeed it would have been extraordinary for Moon to have undertaken such a meeting as the summit with Kim without deep consultation with the United States. (He is of course due to see Trump himself in the course of what will be a very busy diplomatic week in New York, and may well be carrying a further message to Trump from Kim.)
The obvious question is what might the US be prepared to offer, and North Korea be prepared to accept, as “corresponding measures” for the decommissioning of Yongbyon. Moon’s goal of a peace treaty is one possibility, and some relaxation of economic sanctions is another; indeed the summit’s hopes for economic interaction between North and South Korea depend on that. Might the US be prepared to depart from its stance that sanctions will not be relaxed at all until complete, verifiable denuclearisation is achieved? It really depends on “who’s in charge there”: no doubt there are many, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, who prefer and have enunciated the rigid stance. But Trump wants to achieve a positive outcome, and the reality is that “phased, reciprocal actions” by the two sides seem by far the more realistic and possible way to go. The US ‘s willingness to abandon its earlier 12-month time frame may be a pointer to the future.
A deeper question is whether, even if such a “phased, reciprocal” process goes quite a long way, Kim is really likely in the end to give up his country’s nuclear deterrent. Wanting to have your cake and eat it is a basic human characteristic, and while Kim clearly wants to “join the world” in many ways, for decades North Korea has feared a United States attack and has seen its nuclear weapons as its safeguard of last resort. Giving them up would be an epoch-making step, and Kim will need to be thoroughly convinced of United States genuineness and reliability to take it. To say the least this isn’t the best moment for the US to be seen as projecting reliability, but perhaps the North Korean issue could come to be seen as a special case.
There are other possibilities, for example North Korea keeping some nuclear and missile capacity but not adding to, testing or developing it. (Of course it will retain nuclear know-how whatever happens to its physical assets.)
At any rate it seems clear that the Kim-Moon summit did achieve some things, including potentially useful and significant ones. We now await the next steps.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official, and former Ambassador to South Korea.
24 September 2018
PS…After this blog was posted President Trump announced that he was planning a second meeting with Kim..JM