The third North-South summit had two purposes. The first was to probe what could be done on the North-South front, including not only economic cooperation but confidence-building with respect to conventional forces.
The second purpose, however, was to re-engage the United States.
The success of the summit will therefore hinge as much on what happens in Washington as what happened in Pyongyang.
If not seized—whether through a second summit, a sustained diplomatic process at lower levels, or both—the tenuous gains made in Singapore could easily dissipate.
American analysts—and I plead guilty on this count—have the unfortunate habit of reading summit statements for “gotcha” points (see my analysis of the Singapore summit here). Which side got favored language into the text? Who “won”?
This is unfortunate, because the objective should be to discern whether there are meaningful trades and how they might be structured.
Kim Jong Un might have been surprised about how little he was forced to concede in the run up to Singapore. Moreover, that joint declaration clearly conformed with the favored North Korean approach and even language.
The broad commitment to denuclearize was qualified by priorities ordered in a very particular way: an improvement of bilateral relations; progress on a peace regime; and only then denuclearization.
Kim Jong Un has every reason to believe that this approach, with a broad negotiating agenda and step-by-step reciprocal concessions, had been agreed.
Yet this “victory” proved Pyrrhic. Trump faced almost universal pushback for failing to secure more than symbolic gestures and—much more importantly—for failing to establish working parameters for serious negotiations.
Analysts in the U.S. thus approached the third North-South summit looking for tangible offers that would jump-start the process that newly-appointed envoy Stephen Biegun has been working to establish.
So what were the North Koreans actually willing to do?
The offer came in two substantive pieces, one that appears to constitute a unilateral concession: permanent dismantlement of the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform.
This offer had in fact been floated earlier in the year, but the twist was a willingness to allow outside observers to at least witness, if not fully verify, the move.
Much will hinge on what, exactly, is being disabled. The entire test site? The static missile test stand and support pad? Yes, we could interpret this as little more than follow-through on something already promised.
A casual perusal of satellite imagery of the site does not suggest this is a particularly costly signal, and in any case the capacity to launch is by no means limited to test sites. But it is more substantive than any other prior action.
The offer came in two substantive pieces, one that appears to constitute a unilateral concession
The second commitment was prospective, as both sides very much prefer to be at this stage in the negotiations. Nonetheless, the words are significant: the declaration states a willingness to “permanent dismantlement” of Yongbyon.
To be sure, we would still be left with the daunting problems of the weapons themselves, stockpiles of fissile material, a likely second centrifuge site not to mention the very substantial WMD-industrial complex that the regime has built up since the 1960s.
If you believe that the negotiations will inevitably focus on some sequence of trades, however, you have to start somewhere.
The difficult issue for the United States at this juncture is whether it is willing to start by negotiating a series of trades around the production of fissile material (In this regard, Yongbyon would not be enough; the second HEU site would have to be on the table).
Or is the Trump administration going to hold out for a fuller declaration of all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, including the weapons themselves?
This is a serious policy decision, and while I personally favor taking a risk on the first, the political as well as substantive risks are non-trivial.
What was missing from the declaration was actually the top agenda item of the Moon administration: namely, the campaign to secure a declaration to the end of the war.
The document alludes to this only indirectly: that further North Korean actions vis-à-vis Yongbyong would only be taken “as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 U.S.-DPRK Joint Statement.”
The main diplomatic problem on this front is the gap between South Korean ideas about such a declaration and American legal concerns.
There are at least three possibilities, the first of which is a complete non-starter: a declaration of the end of the Korean War that would fully replace the armistice.
There is no way that a sitting U.S. President—of either party—would embark on such a negotiation, let alone conclude it, in the absence of significant advances on the nuclear front.
The second two ideas remain implicit at this point since no proposed text has seen the light of day. One would be an interim agreement that would contain at least some clarity about the role of the armistice institutions during the transition.
The third—and no doubt least satisfying to the two Koreas—would be something that looked a lot like the Panmunjon Declaration: a broad statement of intent about what such a peace regime would look like and a stated willingness to open negotiations on it in tandem with the nuclear talks.
To me, the risks associated with the last of these three options are low. To be sure, the North Koreans will attempt to use any such statement to pick at the exercises, force deployments, the nuclear umbrella and other issues as well.
There are surprisingly few if any concrete economic concessions in the document
But what’s new? The risk is not that these U.S. commitments would actually be weakened. The risk is only that negotiations stall for other substantive reasons and the existence of such a document becomes a pretext for acrimony.
If the North Koreans have no intention whatsoever of moving forward—if they really are seeking a Pakistan outcome—the sooner we find out the better.
A brief word should be said about the economic components of the agreement. There is a lot of concern in the United States that Moon Jae-in will go soft on sanctions. But there are surprisingly few if any concrete economic concessions in the document.
Saying that Kaesong and Kumgang might one day be opened when the time is “ripe” is hardly giving away the store; “ripe” is clearly a code word for significant progress on the nuclear issue.
The rail move is pure theater; a ground-breaking ceremony (backed by significant internal planning on further investments, to be sure).
Environmental and public health activities have pure public goods rationales. The heads of several large Korean groups attended the summit, but are hardly going to invest or even trade absent significant progress between the U.S. and North Korea.
Where to now? The willingness of North Korea to enter into serious negotiations on conventional confidence-building was a pleasant surprise, but the U.S. remains focused on achievements on the nuclear front.
Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Halley are right to focus on continuing derogations with respect to sanctions.
But in the end, that is a side show: the onus is on the United States to structure a more sustained—and sustainable—negotiating process.
In tweets following the meeting and in remarks prior to a domestic trip, Trump sounded confident that such a process will be initiated, including a possible second summit.
And Secretary Pompeo’s invitation to meet the North Korean delegation in New York and open negotiations in Vienna are positives.
But without a clearer sense of what Trump is willing to give and what risks he and his team are willing to take, we simply do not know whether the Pyongyang summit was a success or not.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/Straits Times
The third North-South summit had two purposes. The first was to probe what could be done on the North-South front, including not only economic cooperation but confidence-building with respect to conventional forces.The second purpose, however, was to re-engage the United States.The success of the summit will therefore hinge as much on what happens in Washington as what happened in
Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, director of the Korea-Pacific Program, and distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego. With Marcus Noland, he is the author of "Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements and the Case of North Korea" (Stanford University Press, 2017).