It was just one small gesture, one small step forward, but the significance of the move by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is certainly historic, and will be remembered for years to come. Kim became the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea since the end of the war between the two countries in 1953. He was warmly welcomed and embraced by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. After decades of a military stand-off between the two sides, their leaders made a declaration of peace and promised a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
The standout moment occurred right at the very beginning. If there was a bullet that started World War I in Europe, then may be handshake could bring about peace in the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia. And what analysts are looking for in this agreement is positive momentum and they do not want anything derailed for the next round of talks where Kim Jong Un meets US President Donald Trump.
The fact that this summit took place in itself is historic but if some of the things in the declaration actually happened, they too will be landmark developments – a formal end to the Korean War, a peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea and a return visit by President Moon to Pyongyang in the fall. However, one part of the agreement though will face particular scrutiny and that is the pledge to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. There is nothing in the nuclear issue in the statements other than generalities. The language used in the declaration gives no concrete details and no timeline.
It needs to be noted that it is a nice prelude to the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim. President Moon knows they have to deliver something out of this inter-Korea meeting to the United States to make sure that Trump and Kim’s meeting goes successfully.
Undoubtedly, it’s a positive step in the sense that the last 10 years in the Koreas have pretty much been taken up by tensions between the North and the South over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. And, the international community has been looking at ways to bring that programme to a halt and then roll it back that is denuclearisation. But, not much headway has been made so far.
There are three big lines of effort to come out of this summit. One is the North-South dialogue, which is an important thing. There are dozens and dozens of North Koreans and South Koreans who have been separated hundreds by the Korean War who are in their 80s and 90s. On a humanitarian basis it makes a lot of sense to try to give them an opportunity to meet their cousins-brothers once again.
The North needs humanitarian aid. If there is a way South can help provide it ensuring that it goes to people who need it and not the army.
The other main line of effort being advertised is the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Anyone who has dealt with the North Koreans over the last 20 to 25 years on this question, Republican or Democrat will be deeply sceptical.
The fact remains that North Korea’s concept of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is different from that of the US.
It is hard to imagine that North Korea would agree to fully give up all of their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in a verifiable fashion without some attenuation of the US commitment to South Korea. For North Korea, that would mean the end of a hostile US. But, the US’s security commitment to South Korea is 60 years old. It is one of the US’s core positions in Asia and it is very difficult to imagine that US would attenuate that commitment.
North Korea in 2012 declared that it is a nuclear weapons state. It is not going to change that. It might give access to, may be even destroy some elements of its nuclear weapons programme, perhaps associated with Yongbyon reactor which is now three decades old and not very useful. But, the diplomacy of Pyongyang has always been stopped by the question of verification.
How do states verify that North Korea is in fact giving up its nuclear weapons? They have never granted meaningful verification opportunities that they are dismantling in an irreversible way their programs. There is no evidence that this summit or the follow-on summit with Trump and others will yield that in any meaningful way. So, that remains a big question mark.
Against this backdrop, if North Korea improves its relations with all other major powers in the region, then the security environment of Pyongyang would fundamentally improve. It will not rely on so much on nuclear weapons for security. But, that really requires a fundamental change of the relationship between Pyongyang and Seoul and also between Pyongyang and Washington. Basically, Pyongyang requires Washington and Seoul to provide sufficient security guarantee in order for North to consider denuclearisation.
However, we all know that the security guarantee is by definition reversible. It is simply a political commitment to not threaten the other side. But, this can be withdrawn at any time. It is very difficult for North Korea to trust this security guarantee and therefore, it appears that North Korea is no longer demanding the US and South Korea to provide such security guarantee. It no longer requires the US to withdraw troops from South Korea. Commentators, however, argue there is signal that North Korea also no longer thinks about completely giving up its weapons. So, for the foreseeable future, Pyongyang is likely to maintain some nuclear capabilities even as it agrees to make some concessions.
But overall the declaration of Apr 27 was emphatic and very noteworthy. It does take a little bit of spotlight from the Donald Trump. But, on the other hand, it creates forward momentum regarding the conversation about peace in the Korean Peninsula, which Donald Trump can leverage. What Trump is but to create a concrete detailed framework and process to lower the number of ICBMs. With that he can claim a win, Kim could claim a win and Moon could also claim a win.