AN historic transformation on the Korean Peninsula has just begun.
On 27 April, the two leaders of South and North Korea, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, met face-to-face at the Peace House, a southern part of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas. At this historic summit, Moon and Kim agreed on several key issues: improving inter-Korean relations, alleviating military tensions, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime on the peninsula.
Despite some obstacles ahead, the Moon-Kim summit could lead to the end of the seventy years of confrontation and open a new era on the Korean Peninsula, should the agreements be implemented as promised and the upcoming Trump-Kim summit produce a tangible roadmap for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenals and capability.
The Panmunjom Declaration demonstrates the two Koreas’ firm determination to bring back peace to the peninsula. One of the more substantial proposals, which has received little media attention, is the establishment of a joint liaison office with resident representatives from both sides in Kaesong.
This is a significant progress on the reconciliation and cooperation of the two Koreas. Not only is it the first time in history that such a liaison office would exist with resident representatives, but this office will be established in Kaesong, a North Korean city located half-way away from each capital. Kaesong was the host city of the joint industrial complex established after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye unilaterally shut down the Kaesong industrial complex in February 2016.
This leads to the question of how to avoid repeating past failures. The two previous summits in 2000 and 2007 failed to sustain the momentum for reconciliation and cooperation. One reason was that South Korea’s two conservative governments, from 2008 to 2016, were not enthusiastic about upholding what had been regarded as the achievements of the previous progressive governments.
This is why both Moon and Kim emphasised the speedy implementation of the agreements during the meeting, a vital lesson learned from those years of stalemate. Since President Moon has four more years to go, he appears to be more fortunate in pursuing his North Korea policy than his progressive predecessor, President Roh Moo-hyun, who was only able to meet then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in his last year of presidency.
Simultaneously, the Moon administration is considering a way to institutionalisethe Panmunjom Declaration. Making it legally binding through such a measure as approval by the National Assembly would be one way to prevent future rollback in case the conservatives take power again.
Unfortunately, this strategy is not so promising right now, because the main opposition Liberty Korea Party is vehemently criticising the outcome of the summit. The LKP’s position goes against strong public support for Moon’s initiative – according to a poll taken right after the meeting, Moon’s approval rating hit 85.7 per cent, while even more respondents (88.4 per cent) approve of the Panmunjom Declaration. Yet the LKP’s control of the second largest number of seats in the National Assembly – almost 40 per cent – would be a domestic obstacle for Moon if he attempts to institutionalise the declaration.
Moon and Kim also agreed to embark on such practical steps as connecting and modernising the railways and roads on the eastern and western corridors of the Korean Peninsula. If realised, not only will this joint project improve the poor quality of North Korea’s transportation infrastructure, which is a crucial pre-condition for economic development, but it will also give the South an opportunity to connect itself to the Eurasian Continent. This could transform the country now isolated by barbed-wire fences and ocean into a true peninsula bridging the continent with the Pacific.
Cooperation would probably go beyond the field of transportation and is likely to provide other economic opportunities to the two Koreas and other countries in the region. For instance, Russia has shown a keen interest in supplying pipeline natural gas (PNG) to South Korea through North Korea for many years, and a cross-border inter-Korean railway could be connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Moon and Kim confirmed that realising a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through “complete denuclearisation” is a common goal of the two Koreas. Some US commentators are sceptical of the declaration, criticising it as being full of “empty language” or being too vague on the issue of denuclearisation, and raising doubt about Kim’s intention to abandon his entire nuclear weapons program.
However, denuclearisation is not an issue that can be addressed by the two Koreas alone, but the key agenda item that should be discussed and resolved between Pyongyang and Washington. Even if Moon and Kim discussed how to implement and verify complete denuclearisation, it is likely that the two leaders intentionally left the details to be decided and announced at the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting.
Indeed, there is no doubt that denuclearisation is not an easy task, and it should be done by actions, not by words. At least thus far, Kim Jong-un has not taken any particular actions going against his words.
Although it had been widely expected that suspending North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests would be a first step to be discussed in the Trump-Kim meeting, the North Korean leader proactively announced before the inter-Korean summit that he will immediately stop nuclear tests and launches of inter-continental ballistic missiles. During the summit, Kim also confirmed his earlier announcement that he would dismantle a nuclear test site located at Punggye-ri, denying an allegation that the site may be dysfunctional.
To attract further concessions from Pyongyang, Washington should also be able to offer what Pyongyang has long sought – security guarantees and the normalisation of its diplomatic relationship, among other demands.
The devil is in the detail, and unexpected obstacles might hinder any meaningful progress on the dialogue. Thus, we cannot be certain on the future of the Korean Peninsula until Trump and Kim agree on key issues and a peace treaty is signed.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security advisor, has recently told the media that the United States is considering the Libya model as an example of how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Obviously, North Korea would not want to become another Libya, whose leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrown and killed after giving up his nuclear program. The abrupt collapse of the Kim regime is not in the interest of South Korea either.
In this sense, while the role of South Korea as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington is becoming ever more crucial, the two Koreas have just set foot together on a complicated but hopeful and historic journey toward permanent peace on the peninsula.
By Se Young Jang, nonresident scholar in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Originally published on PolicyForum.net.