The world is aglow with positivity and optimism after South Korean President Moon Jae-in embraced North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un after signing the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. The cordiality and chemistry between the leaders of the two warring nations exceeded expectations, and the day was filled with unforgettable moments and historic photographs. The summit had been, by and large, successful. Leaders Moon and Kim set a number of achievable, short-term goals clearly designed to ensure momentum and drive forward the peace process. The joint declaration was also carefully formulated to set the stage for the upcoming summit between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, we are still a long ways away from peace and denuclearization.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The air of optimism and hope welled up long before the actual summit. For weeks, the world was presented with news of North Korean making concession after concession. However, these concessions given before, and during, the summit were hardly unprecedented. Kim Jong-un promised to suspend nuclear and weapons testing, and offered to shut down Punggye-ri, North Korea’s nuclear test site. Kim Jong-il had also promised to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994 and shut down nuclear facilities in 2007. This promise went as far as having International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors on the ground overseeing the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Nevertheless, the peace process failed upon discovery that the North Koreans were still enriching uranium.
South Korea triumphantly announced that Kim Jong-un would be open to accepting a U.S. military presence on a postwar Korean peninsula. The South Korean president reported that Kim said the following words, almost verbatim: “We are surrounded by big powers – Russian, Japan, and China – so the United States must continue to stay for stability and peace in East Asia.” It was an encouraging sign proving that Kim was a flexible negotiator and was willing to make concessions. Except, in the above quote, the South Korean president is former President Kim Dae-jung, and the Supreme Leader Kim is Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father. Kim Jong-il expressed the exact same sentiments almost two decades ago at the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. We’re seeing all of this again today.
Finally, there is an eerie amount of similarity between the joint Panmunjom agreement and its predecessors. In the year 2000, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il had also agreed to “end hostility and open a new era of reconciliation and cooperation” between the two Koreas, just as their successors did Friday. And that particular summit ended with the South-North Joint Declaration, harboring similar promises of family reunions, development assistance, a promise to visit each other’s capitals, and regular dialogue between authorities. In other words, this summit has brought us back to the starting line. We’ve finally caught up to the year 2000. In the year 2007, after the summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il, the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity again reflected Panmunjom’s joint statement, even mirroring the latter’s intent to carve a special maritime zone of peace and cooperation in the West Sea.
Hope for Peace?
Friday’s summit is most certainly impressive, and the optimism bubbling out of the Korean peninsula is a welcome change from the familiar stories of underground nuclear detonations, ballistic missile tests, and “fire and fury.” During his election campaign, Moon made engagement with North Korea a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and President Donald Trump is hungry to cement his legacy as the U.S. president that brought peace on the Korean peninsula. The temptation to perceive these developments as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle looms large. Both presidents are hungry for it, North Korea seems to be offering it, and the first summit kicked things off with a great start. So can we hope for peace?
The fact of the matter is, despite all of these positive developments, the strategic context remains unchanged. North Korea still remains a poor, weak country, acutely vulnerable to U.S. and South Korean invasion, and nuclear weapons continue to serve as an effective deterrent. Given these conditions, taking North Korea’s charm offensive at face value is unwise. Everything North Korea does is designed to achieve two things: ensure regime survival and pry South Korea away from the United States, eventually leading to complete U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Looking Forward to the U.S.-North Korea Summit
This brings us to the next historic summit between Trump and Kim. North Korea seems to be pulling from a playbook it has already used in the past, but this time, its adversary is one of the most inept, distracted, and fractured administrations in U.S. history. It is one that has consistently questioned the value of alliances and actively undermined alliance cohesion. Furthermore, the United States is especially unprepared for Korean affairs: the ambassador’s seat in Seoul remains empty, the State Department’s most senior North Korea hand went into early retirement, and the State Department remains gutted after the disastrous tenure of Rex Tillerson. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Pyongyang finds this particular administration, at this particular moment in history, to be the opportune moment to execute whatever machinations they have prepared.
This is not pessimism for the mere sake of pessimism. One only needs to take a cold, hard look at recent historical record and the current strategic picture to know that with North Korea, nothing comes easy. U.S. and South Korean policymakers must accept that this is a long, slow, and painful process, and miscommunication, misinterpretation, or even a few angry tweets can derail the fragile progress made so far. Leaders in Washington and Seoul must avoid aiming for the grand-slam, marquee victory. Instead, it is precisely the time to do the opposite: they must keep their cool, coordinate as closely as they can, and, most importantly, set clear, attainable goals for the short-term.
The Trump administration will be going into the summit with only denuclearization in mind. For the time being, we need to forget complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. The emphasis, instead, should be on keeping the North Koreans at the negotiating table, forging deeper patterns of cooperation between the three countries, and maintaining the momentum to eventually achieve peace and denuclearization. In other words, South Korean officials have their work cut out for them: they must carefully brief their U.S. counterparts, temper Trump’s expectations, and build upon the achievements of Friday’s summit. Washington and Seoul must be in lockstep with one another and be fully aware of each other’s policies, strategies, and intentions lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. In Vice President Mike Pence’s own words, there must be no daylight between the two countries.
Harry Sa is a Senior Analyst with the United States Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is from Los Angeles, California.