At first glance, the results of this week’s Pyongyang summit can be divided into three categories. First, there are agreements and gestures which are largely or exclusively symbolic, and whose major goal is to maintain the spirit of optimism and the impression that progress is being made towards denuclearization. This impression is wrong, but both sides have good reason to heavily invest in keeping it alive.
Second, there are agreements (well, perhaps only one) which deal with important issues and are likely to make a difference.
Third, there are efforts to lay the groundwork for substantial progress on nuclear arms reduction and the improvement of inter-Korean relations, but which will only bear fruit if there are some dramatic change to the geopolitical situation – and these changes do not look likely.
STILL, ABOVE ALL, A SHOW
Above all, the Pyongyang summit was a show, the major purpose of which was to demonstrate that things on the Korean peninsula are moving in the right direction, that Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership are ready to surrender their nuclear arms eventually, and are open to negotiations now. The summit was, above all, a mood-building exercise.
The North Koreans did what they could to show that President Moon was welcome: well-organized crowds were gathered on the streets to greet him, and he became the first ROK President to address a large gathering of North Koreans with a seven minute speech. Moon was shown around the city which, as he himself admitted, has recently undergone a major transformation as a result of economic recovery and a construction boom.
Both leaders watched a massive gala performance at the stadium, while their spouses spend much time chatting and walking together. A joint bid to host the 202 Olympics was announced. Kim Jong Un promised to visit Seoul in new future, smiled a lot, was humble and cheerful.
The sides issued a number of declarations, in which they promised that a new era was dawning on the Korean peninsula. It was solemnly declared that North and South would not use force against one another under any circumstances (yes, they have said same things before, with little actual impact on the number of border skirmishes).
At a press conference, Kim Jong Un cited denuclearization as one of his goals: the first time he did so in front of public figures. Meetings of divided families will become more common, even regular.
So, good vibes reigned supreme – as intended.
At the first glance, it might appear that things are moving towards in the right direction: both sides worked hard to project the image of North Korea as a rational international player, ready to talk, cooperate, and engage in compromises on all the important issues: and, presumably, keen to solve the “nuclear problem” eventually.
This image is misleading in many ways: there is little doubt that North Korea is a rational actor, but there is also little doubt that denuclearization is not on its agenda, and will never be.
However, a positive image and spirit of optimism had to be served to the international community and, above all, observers in Washington DC.
IF THIS IS A SHOW, WHERE IS THE AUDIENCE?
These efforts are necessary because dark clouds have gathered in Washington in recent months. After a short period of optimism, caused by North Korea’s seeming willingness to make concessions, it has begun to dawn on U.S. decision-makers that the supposed advancement of North Korean denuclearization is painstakingly slow or non-existent.
These suspicions are right: the leaders of North Korea, having learnt the lessons of Iraq, Ukraine, and, above all, Libya, have never had the slightest intention to commit a collective political – or even physical – suicide by surrendering their nuclear deterrent.
The summit was, above all, a mood-building exercise
They might agree to freeze or even partially reverse it, but they will never abandon it. The concessions and grand promises Pyongyang made early this year were, above all, made to win time. Donald Trump and his advisers looked capable of war, and for a while their threats were supported by very harsh economic sanctions China chose to endorse and implement.
Now the Chinese factor is gone: the sanctions, still existent on paper, are not enforced with the same ferocity. China, understandably annoyed by the U.S.-initiated trade war, sees no reason to press North Korea hard. However, the potential threat of a unilateral military strike, which loomed large in 2017, still remains – and both Seoul and Pyongyang wants to prevent this from materializing.
Right now, the majority of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, as well as the Pentagon, is inclined to support the hard liners in the revival of last year’s “maximum pressure policy.”
However, Donald Trump does not agree with his generals, ambassadors, and intel analysts, and still believes that the North Koreans in general and Kim Jong Un in particular is committed to denuclearization.
It is difficult to say why the President stubbornly holds a view so different from that of his subordinates. He might be naïve enough to actually believe that North Korea is serious about denuclearization, but he might also need the denuclearization illusion in order to carry through some other plans, not necessarily related to foreign policy.
In short, both Koreas need to strengthen the position of the few surviving soft liners and, above all, Donald Trump: the soft liner in chief. This is why they worked so hard to generate the right impression from the Pyongyang talks. The seeming success of the summit will make more difficult for the U.S. hard liners to force their will on the POTUS.
SOME SUBSTANCE, HOWEVER
The major obstacle both Moon and Kim face is simple: they have very little to say on the issues of substance. South Korea cannot conduct meaningful talks about nuclear weapons and ICBMs, since these are American concerns. Economic interaction between two Koreas is also impossible to arrange, since pretty much every conceivable deal will be a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions.
However, there are some important areas where the two can make deals – and this time they used these opportunities as well as they could.
The agreement on military issues, for example, is a truly remarkable document, a lengthy and detailed statement which stipulates that both sides will pull back some of their advance guard posts. They also plan to establish a security buffer zone along the DMZ where military activities will be severely restricted: in this area, both sides cannot conduct artillery drills and maneuvers of units above company level.
A larger area along the DMZ will be closed for military aircraft – there will be different restrictions, depending on the aircraft type. Somewhat similar measures will be applied to the sea demarcation line, known as NLL.
If implemented, these measures will reduce tensions, and will also make incidents at the DMZ significantly less likely – even though it will hardly prevent either side from staging a clash when/if it is seen as politically expedient.
But given that many earlier incidents were seemingly provoked by human error, these measures are likely to save the lives of soldiers from both sides.
The agreement on military issues, too, is a truly remarkable document
SEEDS FOR FUTURE: WILL THEY EVER GERMINATE?
Most of the summit was about mood manipulation, while another, much smaller, part was about making important and valuable agreements.
But many of the decisions and statements we heard can be placed somewhere in between: not purely symbolic, feel-good gestures, but whose implementation depends on conditions which are not necessarily going to be met any time soon, if ever.
Let’s start with the economic measures. Both sides expressed their willingness to restart the Kaesong Industrial Park and the Kumgang Tourist Zone – two major economic cooperation projects which were closed by past conservative administrations. Both projects are not viable without generous South Korean subsidies, both direct and indirect, but Seoul is now very enthusiastic about restarting these now-defunct flagships of cooperation.
There is one problem, however: it is openly stated that the revival of such projects would be possible only under “proper circumstances.” Indeed, currently the resumption of both projects, as well as the launch of similar activities, will be a clear violation of the UN Security Council resolutions, which currently ban nearly all kinds of economic cooperation with North Korea.
Therefore, the revival of the projects will be possible only if and when the UN Security Council reduces the level of sanctions. Given the positions of the U.S. administration, which is dead against any relaxation of the existing sanctions regime, such approval is not forthcoming: the U.S. has veto power at the UNSC, after all.
Railway connection is no exception. While the connection itself can be done now, in order to make the links economically significant, a massive reconstruction of the railway network is necessary. Even putting aside the price of such a reconstruction, likely billions of U.S. dollars at least, railway line reconstruction is impossible as long as the sanctions regime remains in place.
Similar issues are tied to the nuclear program. Kim Jong Un indicated his willingness to close down the Yongbyon nuclear research and development site, conditional on the U.S. willingness to reciprocate.
This demand reflects the current North Korean approach: they believe that they have made a lot of concessions, while the U.S. has not reciprocated. The North Koreans say they are willing to further reduce their nuclear and missile R&D and production capabilities, but only if the U.S. make some concessions – like, say, partial relaxation of the sanctions.
If a bit of showmanship can the reduce the chance of a crisis emerging, let it be this way
For the DPRK side, this is, of course, a way to win time: as long as there is a threat from hard liners in Washington, they want to placate the U.S. by giving some concessions, and reducing their nuclear potential step by step.
This approach is not necessarily bad: it will not deliver the Holy Grail of denuclearization, of course, but nothing will because it is not going to happen.
The piecemeal approach, however, may slow or even reverse the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program for years to come.
Unfortunately, it seems that this compromise, while not impossible, is not going to materialize any time soon: the majority view in the U.S. is that North Korea should first surrender most of its nuclear weapons, and only then it will become eligible for sanctions relief. This approach is based on the rather unrealistic notion that full denuclearization is not merely achievable, but that it be seen as the only goal the U.S. government is willing to accept.
Of course, Donald Trump can change the game at any moment, but so far a gradual approach is rejected by the U.S. administration, whose major hope is get everything in one mighty stroke.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
On balance, the Pyongyang summit was a success. It produced more symbolism than expected, and even some tangible results in relation to military cooperation. The symbolism itself was designed to support an unrealistic and misleading message, but it is still useful.
North Korea is not going to surrender its nuclear weapons completely, but the return of the hard-liners in Washington is a real threat, so if a bit of showmanship can the reduce the chance of a crisis emerging, let it be this way. Most of what was said during Pyongyang summit was a propaganda, but it was useful propaganda, given the threats Koreans face right now.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
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