The Koreas

Korean detente

Print edition : May 25, 2018

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in greet each other at the Military Demarcation Line in the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27. Photo: Korea Summit Press Pit/The New York Times

The meeting, a bird’s-eye view. Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

South Korean soldiers taking down propaganda loudspeakers at Paju om the border with North Korea on May 1. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Korean (left) and U.S. Army missiles being fired during a joint military exercise between the two countries at an undisclosed location in South Korea on July 29, 2017. Photo: South Korea Defence Ministry/AP

With the historic meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea on April 27, the two countries have come closer than ever before to signing a peace treaty and ending seven decades of unremitting hostility.

THE summit meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea on April 27 seems destined to go down in history as a landmark event. The eyes of the world were glued to Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were meeting for the first time. At the request of Moon, Kim symbolically took a few steps into South Korea, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korean territory. The two leaders exhibited unusual bonhomie though they were meeting for the first time. They were shown talking to each other in a forested area outside the conference venue for more than half an hour unencumbered by interpreters or officials. After the joint “declaration for peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean peninsula” was released, it was clear that both sides had done considerable spadework to ensure that the summit was a grand success.

Key takeaways

Among the key takeaways from the summit meeting were the agreements to make the Korean peninsula a nuclear-free zone, to bring an official end to the Korean War and to sign a permanent peace treaty. Signing a peace treaty with South Korea and the United States has been a long-standing demand of North Korea, which has been consistent in its stance that it will contemplate the dismantling of its nuclear programme only if the state of war that officially exists between it and the U.S. and South Korea is ended. “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula,” stated the joint declaration the two leaders signed. Kim said that he had come for the summit with the clear intention of putting “an end to the history of confrontations”.

Moon had evidently assured North Korea that if it agreed to talk seriously about denuclearisation, South Korea would start doing business with it again and help get the U.S. on board too. South Korean said that it was ready to make huge investments to improve the rail and road transport systems in North Korea if it was serious about its pledges regarding denuclearisation. According to South Korean media reports, Kim acknowledged the bad state of the North’s transport system. As North Korea’s frequent missile tests last year were conducted early in the morning, forcing Moon to get up early to attend meetings of his National Security Council, Kim joked that he would ensure that Moon’s sleep was henceforth not disturbed.

The two leaders said that within a year they would together try to facilitate the holding of a trilateral conference that would include the U.S. or a quadrilateral one that would include China, too. China would not like to be excluded from talks as its core strategic interests are involved. The two sides also agreed to set up a permanent liaison office in the North Korean border village of Kaesong and restart the programme that allowed families separated by the Korean War to meet. It was also announced that the South Korean President would be visiting Pyongyang in a few months’ time. The North Korean leader also said that he was looking forward to visiting Seoul.

A senior South Korean official said that Kim had told Moon that he would order denuclearisation if and when the U.S. recognised North Korea and ended the Korean War. “If we meet often and build trust with the United States and if an end to the war and non-aggression is promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?” Kim was quoted as saying. Kim told Moon that he expected to “get along well” with the U.S. President. Donald Trump reciprocated by saying that he looked forward to the meeting with the North Korean leader, which may take place sometime in June.

Trump has been trying to take credit for what he sees as concessions by North Korea. Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, claimed as much: “The economic pressure that has been put in place by this global effort that President Trump has led has led him [Kim] to believe that it is in his best interests to come to the table and talk about denuclearisation.” The U.S. President told the media that he believed that the North Korean leader was serious about his intentions to make a deal on giving up his nuclear arsenal. The U.S and South Korea are trying to make North Korea commit to a timetable for dismantling all of its nuclear weapons by the end of Trump’s current term, which ends in 2021.

The Trump administration’s hard-line position as of now is that the North will have to surrender all its nuclear weapons first and then give up its plutonium and uranium along with its missiles. Only then, U.S. officials state, will there be any scope for the lifting of the sanctions on the country. Pompeo is a known advocate of regime change in North Korea and as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had counselled a military solution. Trump also thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his “great help” in getting the Korean peace process going. The Chinese Foreign Ministry praised “the courage” of the two Korean leaders and said that China welcomed the “new journey” for peace in the Korean peninsula. China urged the two Koreas and other countries in the region “to maintain the momentum of dialogue and work together for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

Talk of unilateral disarmament by the North Koreans seems to be slightly far-fetched. For starters, no country will trust the U.S. given its track record. Trump wants to make a nuclear deal with North Korea but is currently in the process of tearing up the historic nuclear deal the Barack Obama administration signed with Iran. Iran made a whole lot of concessions, including giving up its stockpile of enriched uranium and opening up its nuclear facilities to international inspectors, to reach the deal. A senior U.S. State Department official recently said that the 2015 Iran deal was a “political agreement” by an administration that was no longer in office. Any deal the North Koreans signed with the U.S. now could similarly be wished away by the next administration. Anyway the priority of Pyongyang and Seoul is to sign a peace treaty and end seven decades of almost unremitting hostility. According to many Korea watchers, Trump will find it difficult to militarily threaten North Korea if inter-Korean relations are on the mend.

Until the end of last year, there seemed to be a real threat of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula, with Trump repeatedly stressing that “all options were open” while dealing with North Korea. The Trump administration had instituted a policy of “maximum pressure” on the North. In hindsight, the election of the pacifist President Moon late last year was a fortuitous factor that led to the gradual de-escalation of tensions in the region.

Before the April 27 meeting, both the North and the South had made meaningful concessions. The North set the ball rolling by seizing the diplomatic opportunity presented by the Winter Olympics being held in South Korea. North Korea was quick to accept the invitation the Olympic Committee extended to it to jointly participate in the games with the South. The high-level delegation accompanying the team included the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong and the country’s President, Kim Yong-nam. It helped that Moon is a committed proponent of better North-South relations.

‘Sunshine policy’

Moon’s political gurus were former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Kim Dae-jung was the author of the “sunshine policy”, which led to a thaw in relations with the North. The policy encouraged South Korean industries to start investing in the North. Families separated by the civil war were allowed to meet for the first time. The current President, who as a trade unionist fought against the military dictatorship in South Korea, was one of the closest associates of Roh, who succeeded Kim Dae-jung to the presidency. The U.S. and conservative parties in South Korea were not happy with the “sunshine policy”. Their only goal at the time was a regime change in the North.

Moon’s two immediate predecessors in the Blue House, the executive office and official residence of South Korean heads of state, were arch conservatives. After scuttling the “sunshine policy”, they adopted a belligerent tone towards the North. One reason why the North speeded up its nuclear and missile programmes was the almost decade-long hostility from the leaders of the South. The size and magnitude of the annual joint military exercises South Korea conducted with the U.S. increased every year. Nuclear-armed B-52 bombers flew dangerously close to the DMZ during recent joint military exercises. The psychological warfare against the North was also scaled up. For instance, plans to physically eliminate the North Korean leadership in a hypothetical war scenario were hyped up. Moon assumed power at a critical time. The North had successfully conducted nuclear tests and test launched nuclear-capable missiles, and Trump, the new U.S. President, was threatening fire and brimstone against the North. That was when Moon got his back channels working with the North.

With the thaw that set in between the Koreas after the Winter Olympics, the North suggested a meeting between the two leaders. South Korean readily accepted the proposal. In the third week of April, a hotline was set up for the first time connecting the offices of the two leaders in Pyongyang and Seoul. In the last week of April, the South announced that it was suspending hostile broadcasts through high-tech loudspeakers stationed along the DMZ. The North reciprocated by suspending its own propaganda barrage through its primitive loudspeakers.

In quick succession, the North also announced that it was suspending all further nuclear and missile tests and would close its nuclear-testing site “to guarantee transparency in the suspension of nuclear tests”. “The nuclear test site has done its job,” Kim said. The North had suspended its nuclear and missile tests for the last couple of months anyway. Speaking to the central committee of the ruling Workers Party, Kim said that there no longer was any need for testing as the country already had a nuclear deterrent. Soon after this announcement, the South Korean President indicated that North Korea no longer objected to the continued presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula.

Trump welcomed these diplomatic moves, though senior U.S. officials privately voiced their scepticism. The South Korean presidential spokesman said that the move by the North “was a significant step towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

Kim has so far not given any timeline for the dismantling of his nuclear arsenal. Many Western policymakers and opinion-makers feel that North Korea’s latest diplomatic outreach is a ploy to gain time and ease the onerous sanctions the international community has imposed on it. However, going by its past statements and earlier negotiating positions, it is clear that what the North wants is a firm “security guarantee” from the U.S.

Trip to Beijing

Before North Korea made its dramatic diplomatic moves, it took care to keep the Chinese leadership informed. In late March, the reclusive North Korean leader made a trip to Beijing to meet with Xi. It was the North Korean leader’s first official trip abroad after taking over from his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. Relations between China and North Korea were somewhat frayed as the latter refused to heed the former’s advice to desist from its nuclear and missile tests. China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner. Currently, because of the sanctions, most of its trade with China remains suspended. Pyongyang was not happy that Beijing supported the West in the United Nations Security Council in condemning its nuclear tests and imposing back-breaking sanctions. But after the visit, relations seem to be back on an even keel.

It is not known to what extent South Korea kept the U.S., its treaty ally, in the loop when secret negotiations were going on between the South and the North. But shortly after the announcement of the scheduled meeting between Kim and Moon, North Korea stated that it would be open to a meeting between Kim and Trump. The U.S. quickly accepted the proposal and thereafter it was revealed that Pompeo, who was CIA chief at the time, had made a secret visit to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the first meeting between a sitting U.S. President and the leader of North Korea.

Japan taken by surprise

The Japanese government seems to have been taken by surprise at the fast pace of developments in the Korean peninsula. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, who was in Washington when North Korea announced it was suspending nuclear and missile tests, said that Tokyo needed further guarantees. He said that North Korea had not specified that it would stop testing short- and medium-range missiles that had the range to hit targets in Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, however, been quick to praise the outcome of the historic summit. He said that the commitment to denuclearisation was “a positive move towards the comprehensive settlement of various issues surrounding North Korea”. The right-wing government in Japan is uneasy about the growing rapprochement between the North and the South. Japan had officially objected to some islands shown on a map of the Korean peninsula on a mango mousse dessert that was served to the two Korean leaders at the summit dinner. The islands in question are claimed by Japan.

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