The third North-South Summit turned out largely as scripted. With impressive visuals, it produced a wide-ranging declaration of intent which raised plenty of red flags for skeptics.
It is premature to reach a judgment; all of the details will require subsequent negotiations. The central question coming out of the summit is how the North-South track and the nuclear track will be linked.
For conservative critics in both the U.S. and South Korea, the declaration contained a slew of red flags. First, the declaration managed to not once but twice insert language to the effect that the way forward will be “led by Koreans” and that the destiny of the peninsula will be determined by North and South “on their own accord.”
This formulation—also contained in other North-South agreements going back to 1972—would appear to state the obvious. But the issues are regional and even global in scope. The U.S., Japan, China, and Russia all have stakes in the outcome and the UN Security Council has spoken on the conflict in a series of authoritative resolutions.
The armistice is a three-party agreement involving the U.S. and China, and indirectly through the UN Command, a host of sending nations that include the South as well. South Korea, too, maintains a formal treaty alliance with the United States. The way forward obviously involves a complex of interests that will be engaged in various ways in reaching a broader settlement.
A second concern—and perhaps the primary one—centers on the future of the sanctions regime. The Trump administration has insisted that the strategy of maximum pressure will continue into any upcoming negotiations. As would be expected, the timing of concessions has been left vague.
The central question coming out of the summit is how the North-South track and the nuclear track will be linked
Some statements coming out of Washington suggest that very little will be on offer until the North’s nuclear program is dismantled. At other times, the administration has tacitly acknowledged the reality that concessions will have to be phased.
A key question coming out of the declaration is whether some of those concessions might be granted in the course of the North-South détente that has come out of the Olympics. According to the Declaration: “South and North Korea agreed to actively implement the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.”
The Roh Moo-hyun-Kim Jong Il summit document produced a host of projects ranging from investments in infrastructure to efforts to dampen tensions along the Northern Limit Line and an agreement on fishing, an objective which is explicitly restated.
Does the stated intention to reconnect the two rail lines signal a first step toward relaxing the post-Cheonan sanctions? After all, what point would it make sense to connect these lines if there is no traffic along them? Or is this simply a symbolic gesture to build confidence?
Finally, there is the question of what was said and not said about the nuclear issue. The sum total on this point is contained in the penultimate paragraph of the document and refers to the elusive concept of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. To skeptics, this very formulation is problematic.
Since there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea, “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” means nothing more than the complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement of the North Korean program, certainly a formulation that was nowhere to be seen either in the formal declaration nor in any other statement.
If this formulation implies some commitment with respect to the extended deterrent or how forces are deployed in and around the Korean peninsula, it touches not only on American interests but South Korea’s freedom to ally and defend itself as it sees fit.
The issue is not American meddling, but South Korean independence to define its own national security strategy. Nonetheless, the North will undoubtedly pick at these issues under the guise of receiving security assurances, and perhaps in the way it defines hostile actions.
Yet it is also important to underscore that this is the opening of a much more prolonged negotiation process and that none of these poison pills were unexpected. Neither do they necessarily define or constrain how subsequent negotiations will unfold.
The idea that the North will be able to push American forces off the peninsula is a fantasy
Everyone knows that North Korea will go into talks with the U.S. both seeking to hold on to its capability for as long as possible and to extract the concessions it can at each and every step. What else would we expect?
In addition, there are some positives. Peace is ultimately maintained by deterrent capabilities, not declarations. But the stated intent of ceasing tests and provocations should be welcomed. North-South channels withered almost entirely under Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye, and the ability of the leaders to rebuild them and consult is a plus.
The prospect of exchanges was tied—no doubt by the North Korean side—to celebrations of their favored agreements such as the June 2000 summit.
However, the agreement also contains an important reference to the fact that all North-South agreements would be honored, presumably including the sweeping commitments of the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Of particular interest is the fact that the North also appears to have agreed that conventional forces should be put on the table.
Again, there are risks; as noted, the North will quite naturally poke at the annual exercises and the deployment of U.S. forces. But the idea that the North will be able to push American forces off the peninsula is a fantasy. Kim Jong Un’s acknowledgment of the fact that exercises would resume following the Olympics simply bowed to reality.
One disappointment on family reunions is the fact that they are once again tied to politics: why do they need to correspond with national holidays rather than being an ongoing process that can resume immediately?
The broader commitment to open exchanges, though, including North Koreans coming South, is generally something that the South and the U.S. should welcome.
THE CURSE OF SEQUENCING
In the end, the tough issues all lie ahead. Progress on the components of the summit declaration will ultimately be contingent on progress made in the nuclear domain.
It is wrong to hype the summit document but also wrong to denigrate it
The declaration bows to the reality that three and four-party talks will ultimately be required to reach a broader settlement on the peninsula, and in doing so tacitly acknowledges reality: that China and the United States have legitimate interests not only in the shape of a peace regime but in the denuclearization that will have to accompany it.
It is wrong to hype the summit document but also wrong to denigrate it. We were hardly in a good place prior to the Olympic truce and we are not worse off if the linked summits ultimately fail to initiate a breakthrough. Containment has long been the effective default option since the Six Part Talks collapsed in 2008.
We still don’t know much about what the U.S. and North Korea are willing to trade on the nuclear question. As a result, the Panmunjon Declaration does not so much set up the subsequent summit, as ultimately depend on it.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps
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