“After a furious year of missile launches and nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North Korea and South Korea is now taking place,” remarked President Donald Trump via Twitter on Friday.
Seemingly coming out from the cold, Kim Jong-un has spent the last three months on the diplomatic trail with actions that have included sending a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, travelling to Beijing in late March to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and secretly meeting with former CIA director Mike Pompeo on Easter weekend in North Korea.
The latest, and perhaps most astonishing and significant act of diplomacy, took place last Friday when North met South in the third inter-Korean summit, and the first to be held on South Korean soil.
So what do we know so far about the outcomes of this historical summit and its meaning for the future of the Korean Peninsula? It began with a two-hour session held just south of the military demarcation line in the Joint Security Area at the Peace House. This was the first time a North Korean leader has entered the South since the ceasefire and armistice of the Korean War in 1953. The session between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spanned the topics of denuclearisation and a permanent peace agreement. In the afternoon, the two spent 30 minutes walking without officials in a wooded area and, in a symbolic gesture, planted a tree.
In the late afternoon, the two leaders signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula. This declaration includes denuclearisation and future talks to bring a formal end to conflict between the two states. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, joined by their wives Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jung-sook, wrapped things up in the evening with dinner in the Truce Village.
Remaining etched in the visitors’ book at the Peace House is Kim Jong-un’s inked message “A new history begins now.” Or does it?
The previous two inter-Korean summits took place in 2000 and 2007. In 2000, late leaders Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang amid a softening approach by the South toward the North in their ‘Sunshine Policy’. However, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Kim Dae-jung’s legacy was tainted when revelations surfaced that a payment of US$200 million to the North occurred prior to the summit.
Skepticism is abound among the community of North Korean observers. Is this another ploy of brinkmanship diplomacy to garner economic concessions?
In 2007, Kim Jong-il met with late President Roh Moo-hyun at the second inter-Korean summit held again in Pyongyang. Roh’s efforts were to be reversed weeks later when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took the helm.
His legitimacy staked in anti-corruption following the ousting of scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely to have learned from the previous summits. But what does this mean for progress?
Skepticism is abound among the community of North Korean observers. Is this another ploy of brinkmanship diplomacy to garner economic concessions? Denuclearisation of the peninsula is the endgame for South Korean president Moon, but it may cause ‘the end’ of decades of Kim regime leadership in the North. Yet, North Korea has proven too sophisticated when it comes to its true foreign policy aim, regime perpetuation.
Nevertheless, eliciting positive reactions from the international community, the significance of the summit has broader impact globally. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang noted, “The positive outcome of the summit is helpful for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, peace and stability on the peninsula and the political resolution of Korean peninsula issues.” In the US, the White House issued a statement commenting, “We are hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.” Even Russia is “ready to facilitate peace.”
However, a more uncertain tone emanated from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. “…I strongly hope that North Korea will take concrete actions. I will keep close eyes on North Korea’s actions from now.”
Tension on the Korean Peninsula has affected the global community for decades. In this sense, any progress is good progress and a peaceful conclusion to the last bastion of the Cold War would be positive internationally.
Yet, those with high hopes for meaningful steps toward reunification in the near future should exercise patience. Barring an internal collapse of the North, the Kim regime is unlikely to concede to complete denuclearisation or an end to its hostile rhetoric towards the South, at least domestically. Moreover, a span of documented human rights abuses extending to the Kim Jong-un era are not likely to be neglected should reunification occur on the South’s terms. Hence, intentions are unlikely genuine on the side of the North.
The stakes have been raised for the planned meeting between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in late May or early June, and for more concrete steps to be taken at a proposed second meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in this autumn in Pyongyang.
It is only natural to end these reflections as they began. Cue Twitter.
“Good things are happening, but only time will tell!” – President Donald Trump