FOR the third time in less than a year, the leaders of North and South Korea greeted each other with outstretched hands and a reconciliatory mindset.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in stepped off the plane at Pyongyang airport on Tuesday and was greeted by cheering crowds and an honour guard of soldiers as the two leaders made their way to waiting limousines.
2018 has proven to be a whirlwind of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. Just 12 months ago the prospect of the two sides meeting at all seemed an impossibility, but after an unorthodox and surprisingly effective intervention by US president Donald Trump – not to mention months of groundwork from Moon – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un finally came to the negotiating table.
The summit is expected to last three days with a lot to discuss in that relatively short period of time. Given the shifting geopolitical relationship between the two, the agenda promises to be jam-packed with denuclearisation no doubt near the top of the list.
Moon is expected to act as mediator in faltering talks between Kim and the United States regarding the regime’s plans to denuclearise.
Talks have reached a stalemate with Pyongyang insisting the US make some concessions before they begin the process of denuclearisation, and the US insisting Pyongyang begin denuclearisation before the US makes any concessions. Needless to say, the process has stalled.
The hope is Moon can jumpstart discussion by extracting some even minor concession from Kim, who has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to disarm.
All players in this game have pledged to work towards ending the Korean War. As it was halted by an armistice in 1953, the war has never officially been declared over.
In the Panmunjom Declaration from the first inter-Korean summit, both North and South agreed to peace on the peninsula before the year is out. And Trump reportedly told Kim in June that he would sign a declaration to end the war soon after their meeting in Singapore.
And there lies the sticking point. Trump hasn’t done this. In fact, the United States has backed away from the idea, cancelling talks and reaffirming sanctions to be stricter than ever.
As Trump has not fulfilled his promise, Kim has shown no leeway on his part. But the clock is ticking, and if the end of year goal is going to be met, something’s got to give.
Moon is scheduled to travel to New York after the Korean summit where he will meet with Trump. If he is able to come bearing a sign of goodwill from Kim, he’s is likely to find a far more receptive president.
It’s possible – although unlikely – Kim may be willing to provide an inventory of his weapons (accurate or not). Something the US has been after for some time. Failing this, he may at least make his freeze on nuclear and missile tests official by putting it down on paper.
Central to discussions will be improving ties between the two Koreas through cooperation and joint projects.
Moon entered their first negotiations in April with grand plans for major economic partnerships. But with the US cracking the whip with sanctions against the North, any meaningful collaboration is difficult to engineer.
Having said that, there’s no doubt they will still be discussed. Collaborations include plans to improve North Korea’s failing infrastructure and intentions to one day break ground on the Seoul-Pyongyang-China railway.
Given the Supreme Leader’s newly discovered focus on improving his country’s crippled economy, Kim is likely to be frustrated at the slow progress on the economic front as he has been calling for sanctions to be eased since his flurry of diplomacy began in early 2018.
One area they will likely make progress is military cooperation. In April, the two sides agreed to halt “all hostile acts” against each other on land, sea and air. Since then, high ranking military officials have been conducting talks to build military trust and reduce tensions.
Seoul’s top presidential security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told a security forum in Seoul last week: “South and North Korea are making attempts virtually at an entry level of an operational arms control beyond the level of confidence-building between their military authorities,” as reported by Yonhap.
If Kim and Moon can walk away with concrete arms control measures and an official agreement on military cooperation, then this would be a win for both sides.
Until America is ready to play ball, a lot of the agreements to come from the three-day event will likely be symbolic rather than concrete and actionable. But any progress is better than no progress, and this will be another significant step on the road to Korean reconciliation.