Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address, and the surge of diplomatic overtures that followed, came as a shock to many. The preceding year had been marked by the North’s heightened efforts toward completing its nuclear program, demonstrating a significant technological leap and leading it to more confidently declare itself a “nuclear state.” Combined with Donald Trump’s penchant for impulsive retorts, the North’s provocations had prompted nontrivial debates about the possibility—or even imminence—of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Against this backdrop, Kim’s olive branch was a welcome, if surprising, development: Kim took a notably conciliatory tone toward the South, suggesting the North’s participation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. For Moon Jae-in, rapprochement with the North was strategically imperative in the immediate term: its participation in the Olympics ensured successful completion of his first major diplomatic event, and the resulting thaw in North-South relations could ease the tension that had built up over a rhetorical standoff between Trump and Kim. But beyond the provisional relief, can Moon use this diplomatic momentum to facilitate durable peace on the Korean Peninsula?
In this commentary, I examine Moon’s responses to Kim’s diplomatic overtures post-Pyeongchang. Tracing events to the North-South summit in Panmunjom, I discuss Moon’s objectives in engaging the North, and the challenges he faces, given the impending Trump-Kim talks.
Following a flurry of diplomatic and cultural exchanges between the two Koreas, Moon and Kim met for the third ever inter-Korean summit on April 27. Unlike the previous two summits, which were held surreptitiously in Pyongyang, Moon and Kim gathered in the southern part of the border truce village of Panmunjom. This allowed the South Korean and international media to broadcast the summit as it unfolded, providing, for the first time, an unencumbered sight of Kim during his de facto international debut.
The summit was rich with symbolism, from a menu featuring the North’s signature dish to the two leaders watering a commemorative pine tree “as an expression of their wish for peace and prosperity.” Images of the two leaders hugging and walking hand-in-hand elicited widespread delight, particularly among the South Korean public. Bolstering these cosmetic effects were Kim’s own reconstructed image: contrary to South Korean expectations of a “mad man” persona, Kim presented himself as honest, humble, and jovial. He joked regretfully about his morning missile launches having so often troubled Moon, pledging not to regress. Moreover, in praising South Korean express trains, Kim described the North’s transit system as “inconvenient” and “embarrassing,” and promised to better accommodate Moon when he visits. Kim even mentioned “North Korean defectors” and “residents of Yeonpyeong island,” saying they must have high hopes for the summit. Each remark—shared comfortably and off-script—painted Kim as a reasonable and even amiable leader, which further reinforced an imagery of peace as he embraced Moon with a smile and open arms.
Aside from the symbolism, the two leaders jointly announced the “Panmunjom Declaration,” which laid out their common objectives in three categories: 1) improving inter-Korean relations through joint cultural, economic, and social projects; 2) reducing military tension and eliminating the threat of conflict; and 3) establishing a “peace system” to bring a formal end to the war. Using language that largely resembles previous agreements, the declaration reintroduces a number of familiar elements, including commitment to denuclearization, replacement of the current armistice agreement with a peace treaty, and resumption of family reunions. As expected, the declaration is packed with generalities that are primarily aimed at setting a tone of amity to facilitate the two Koreas’ deepening engagement.
Despite its lack of details, the declaration introduces some new provisions with respect to denuclearization and peace. First, the declaration aims to declare an end to the Korean War and establish a permanent peace regime by the end of this year. This is a highly ambitious timeline for negotiating a peace treaty, which will most certainly require quadrilateral talks involving the United States and China—two larger powers with conflicting interests beyond the peninsula. Second, the declaration calls for “complete” denuclearization. Moon could use this bold (if vague) qualification to please Trump, but “a nuclear-free Korea” means both Koreas—Kim may tie the North’s denuclearization to ending US extended deterrence in the South, diminishing the US-South Korean alliance. Third, the declaration states that disarmament will be carried out “in a phased manner.” This stipulation imparts considerable uncertainty about the process, rewards, and timetable Pyongyang has in mind for dismantling its nuclear program. Indeed, Kim’s expectations for gradual sanctions relief may be at odds with Trump’s plan to retain his “maximum pressure” campaign until the North has completely, verifiably, and irreversibly denuclearized.
In addition, the declaration contains some noteworthy changes regarding inter-Korean relations and non-military issues. First, the declaration focuses less on economic projects and more on cooperation in social and cultural domains, such as the joint participation at the 2018 Asian Games. This is presumably because Moon is conscious of the existing UN-backed sanctions regime—which prohibits large-scale economic projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex—and Trump’s continued insistence on the “maximum pressure” approach. Accordingly, substantive proposals on economic rewards and sanctions relief for the North will come later, once Kim has taken tangible steps toward denuclearization. Second, the declaration does not mention “human rights.” Moon’s failure to include the human rights issue indicates his desire to withhold topics that Kim might find offensive; yet, human rights will likely emerge as a point of contention if and when Washington decides to consider normalizing its relations with North Korea. Third, the declaration binds Moon to visit Pyongyang this fall. Scheduling another summit in advance suggests Moon’s wish to regularize contact with the North and redouble engagement, potentially due to his own misgivings about the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.
An Unprecedented Breakthrough or a Looming Showdown?
From Moon’s perspective, his latest summit with Kim was largely successful. Already in his Berlin speech—merely two months into assuming office—Moon proposed a deal with North Korea in which denuclearization is connected to establishing a more permanent peace structure in Korea. He stated at the time: “Through a comprehensive approach on the North Korean nuclear issue and establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, my Government will pursue the conclusion of a peace treaty along with complete denuclearization.” In addition, Moon has since endorsed a two-track approach to inter-Korean relations that treats non-political exchanges separately from the nuclear issue. These two key elements from his so-called “Berlin Framework” are clearly reflected in the Panmunjom Declaration, which correspondingly addresses denuclearization, a peace regime, and inter-Korean relations. The similarities in their language—including the proviso “complete denuclearization”—further suggests success on Moon’s part in framing the dialogue prior to the Trump-Kim summit.
Even so, the Moon administration faces challenges in retaining the diplomatic momentum—in subsequent negotiations, Seoul and Pyongyang must delineate concrete measures, the outcomes of which will then be subject to US review. This whole process may divulge differences in each party’s expectations, perhaps most crucially on the definition and process of “complete” denuclearization. Prior to the inter-Korean summit, the North (supposedly) dropped its long-held demand that the United States withdraw its forces stationed in the South as a precondition for denuclearization. More recently during the inter-Korean summit, Kim stated that he is willing to dismantle his nuclear program if the United States commits to formally ending the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North. To make those promises credible, Kim could demand more specific and tangible security guarantees, ranging from repealing the US policy of extended deterrence in the South to curtailing US-South Korean joint military exercises involving US strategic assets and decapitation plans against the Kim regime. Demonstrably, the devil will be in the details—the success of ongoing diplomacy will depend on how widely the parties vary in their expectations vis-à-vis each other and how much of their differences is reconcilable.
While Moon finds himself constrained in leading the discussion on denuclearization—an issue traditionally handled between North Korea and the United States—he also sees Trump as an unpredictable partner. Even though Trump relishes taking credit for the North’s turn to diplomacy (in part rightly so), it is questionable that he has a long-term strategy for dealing with North Korea. His tweet in response to the inter-Korean summit—“KOREAN WAR TO END!”—demonstrates the kind of innocent, casual disregard of the complexities behind the Korean conflict that could pose as a blessing or a curse. Given Trump’s affinity for quick and big decisions, it may work favorably for Moon, as Trump agrees to a sweeping deal with Kim in search of recognition and drama. But Trump’s blindness may just as likely lead to a failed summit, prompting him to conclude that sanctions and dialogue are not enough, and that military options are the only way forward. In an equally alarming turn of events, Trump may determine that he wants to retreat from the South altogether as long as the North commits to dismantling its ICBMs. Each of these scenarios is within the realm of possibility with Trump, and fears of military escalation and abandonment remain palpable in Seoul even as it celebrates its recent breakthrough in improving inter-Korean relations.
Is the recent outbreak of diplomacy with North Korea an unprecedented breakthrough or a looming showdown? This depends on a number of factors, many of which are out of Moon’s control. What Trump is willing to offer Kim in exchange for denuclearization and how far Kim is willing to disarm will play a significant part. Though not covered in this commentary, US-China dynamics in the region will have important consequences as well, particularly when it comes to longer term considerations such as establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. While Moon deserves some credit for getting Trump and Kim to talk, he now faces a harder task of getting them to stay in talks and make meaningful progress on denuclearization and peace. Yet, the fact that Moon has little direct leverage on either party encumbers his efforts to take a “driver’s seat” as diplomacy continues.