Hugs, handshakes and smiles were much in evidence during what has been described as a “historic” summit meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27th. The meeting was held at the so-called “Peace House” on the southern side of the border between the two countries that are still technically in a state of war with each other. As a symbolic gesture, Kim Jong-un stepped over the line of demarcation into South Korea and invited Moon Jae-in to step across the border into North Korea. The two leaders acted like two long lost cousins who had suddenly found each other. Kim said he felt a "swirl of emotion." Moon characterized Kim’s crossing of the border as a "sign of peace, not a sign of division."
Aside from planting a ceremonial tree with water and soil from both countries, the only tangible output from the summit meeting was a joint declaration entitled the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. It called for talks, including with the United States and possibly China, to declare an official end to the Korean War. The two leaders also committed, without any specifics as to timetable, conditions or what denuclearization even means in practical terms, to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Evidently trying to manage expectations and temper any optimism that complete denuclearization would take place anytime soon, the two Korean leaders agreed only “to carry out disarmament in a phased manner, as military tension is alleviated and substantial progress is made in military confidence-building.” Their respective military authorities, including at the defense minister level, will hold frequent meetings “in order to immediately discuss and solve military issues that arise between them.” North and South Korea will set up a liaison office and move to allow once again the reunification of families now living apart because of the North-South division.
Kim Jong-un signaled his desire for a path towards complete reunification of the two Koreas, although studiously avoiding the question of who would be in charge and under what economic and political system the reunification would take place. “Using one language, one culture, one history South and North Korea will be reunited as one country, thus enjoying everlasting peace and prosperity," Kim said.
The two leaders are hoping for more meetings between them, including a plan for President Moon to visit Pyongyang in the fall. We can only hope that the Panmunjom Declaration’s pronouncement of a “new era of peace” does not turn out to be a reprise of Neville Chamberlain’s infamous declaration of “peace for our time” upon returning to Great Britain from his meeting with Adolf Hitler.
President Trump, who now intends to hold his own summit meeting with Kim Jong-un in late May or early June, reacted positively to the Kim-Moon meeting, tweeting: "After a furious year of missile launches and Nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North and South Korea is now taking place. Good things are happening, but only time will tell." The president later tweeted: "KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!"
The president may be getting a bit ahead of himself, although he has continued to insist on seeing North Korea make substantial progress towards complete denuclearization before easing up on his “maximum pressure” strategy. "The United States in the past was played like a fiddle," by North Korea, President Trump said Friday. "That's not happening to us." Whether he turns out to be right will depend on following through with his expressed willingness to walk away from the negotiating table if it looks like Kim Jong-un will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and try to play us.
Previous summits between North and South Korean leaders and calls for formally ending the Korean War went nowhere. North Korea has broken previous promises to freeze or roll back its nuclear program in return for economic concessions. This time, Kim Jong-un said, things will be different. He vowed that the two countries will not "repeat the unfortunate history in which past inter-Korea agreements...fizzled out after beginning." But why should we believe him? This is the same man who not too long ago said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were a "powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding the peace and security in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia."
Notably, the joint declaration did not condition a formal peace treaty or economic cooperation between North and South Korea upon North Korea’s commitment to its complete denuclearization, let alone upon concrete steps regarding when or how to get there.
“Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further,” the declaration said. The two leaders set the goal for this year of talks resulting in an “an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”
Economic cooperation would start right away, with implementation of “the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.” The two Korean leaders agreed as “a first step” to move forward with a project sure to help North Korea more than it would help South Korea - “the connection and modernization of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilization.”
Already there is every indication that Kim’s seemingly grand gesture to close down an underground nuclear test site in a mountainous region of North Korea was not motivated by his quest for peace. More likely it came about because the site had collapsed. Yet Kim is reaping whatever propaganda advantage he can, even going so far, according to the New York Times, as to “invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to watch the shutdown next month of his country’s only known underground nuclear test site.”
President Trump will be meeting with Kim Jong-un after the latter had managed to maneuver South Korea towards focusing on normalization of diplomatic and economic relations in advance of North Korea having to demonstrate any real progress towards complete, verifiable denuclearization. President Trump will not be able to count on China’s continuing support for enforcement of severe economic sanctions against North Korea while North Korea is making nice with its peace overtures.
John R. Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser and a hardliner on North Korea and Iran, showed the right attitude when warning that deeds, not words, are what count. “We want to see real commitment,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We don’t want to see propaganda from North Korea. We’ve seen words. We’ve seen words so far. The North Korean propaganda playbook is an infinitely rich resource.”
Kim Jong-un wants quick sanctions relief, using every lever he has to pry South Korea and China from continuing to support the Trump administration's maximum economic pressure strategy if there is any prospect of peace on the Korean Peninsula. No matter what he says, Kim also will not give up all his nuclear weapons and missiles in which he has invested so much. At most, he may agree after protracted negotiations to gradually ramp down his nuclear weapons and missile programs, under the aegis of a non-intrusive inspection mechanism. Hopefully, President Trump will follow the same principle when he walks into his summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, and examines anything Kim promises, that presumably had guided his business dealings before becoming president of the United States: Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).