The month of September witnessed a flurry of activity in Seoul, Pyongyang and New York to restart the stalled negotiations between United States and North Korea. Considerable preparatory work in Seoul led to the third North-South Summit this year in Pyongyang between September 18 and 20, followed by an important meeting in New York on September 24, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in reassured US President Donald Trump that Chairman Kim Jong-un was committed to denuclearisation but expected some “corresponding measures” from the United States.
The Pyongyang summit propelled the process of reconciliation between the two Koreas forward, building on the principles enunciated in the historic Panmunjom Declaration of April 27. Chairman Kim announced that a military agreement to create a nuclear-free Korean peninsula had been adopted. President Moon Jae-in added: “The South and the North agreed to eliminate all risks that could lead to war from all parts of the Korean peninsula.”
In the Pyongyang joint declaration, some concrete steps towards the denuclearisation of North Korea were included. North Korea has agreed to permanently dismantle two key facilities of its ICBM programme, which directly threatens the mainland United States. The North will dismantle a missile engine test facility and a missile launchpad, and will allow international experts to witness the process. The North also offered to permanently shut its nuclear facility at Yongbyon if certain conditions are met. This is the same facility where the reactor cooling tower was demolished by the North in July 2008 following intense international pressure, and was rewarded by the United States by removing North Korea from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.
At Pyongyang, a 17-page document was signed between the two defence ministers on “The Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain”, in which the two Koreas have inter alia “agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea”. The two sides have also agreed to create a Joint Military Committee to lower tension and prevent any untoward incident.
In a much-analysed para of the Pyongyang joint declaration, the two sides “shared the view that the Korean peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats...” The “nuclear threats” obviously emanate from the United States and this wording may give an opening to North Korea to insist on a definition of “denuclearisation” that goes much beyond the denuclearisation of North Korea. Implying that denuclearisation would be a slow step-by-step process, the North expressed its willingness to “take additional measures, such as permanent dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK joint statement” between President Trump and Chairman Kim in Singapore.
Clearly, the future progress of denuclearisation depends on an agreed understanding between the US and North Korea on the “corresponding measures” which US would take as the North takes specific action to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and facilities. The official US position is that complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation has to be completed by the North without any preconditions. This is now clearly untenable.
On September 24 in New York, Presidents Moon and Trump discussed possible “corresponding measures” as North Korea takes steps towards denuclearisation. Giving his assessment of the situation consequent to his third meeting with the North Korean leader, President Moon Jae-in reportedly conveyed to President Trump that “while repeatedly expressing his high expectations of President Trump, Chairman Kim expressed a hope to meet with President Trump at an early date to quickly conclude the denuclearisation process”.
It appears that South and North Korea are working together to persuade the United States to formally declare an end to the Korean War, which had ended in an armistice in July 1953. Since the United Nations was a combatant party in the Korean War, a formal end of the war would require an appropriate Security Council resolution as well. In New York, President Moon met UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and conveyed that a formal end of the Korean War would provide some security assurances to North Korea.
US analysts fret that if the Korean War is formally ended then North Korea, supported by Russia and China, may demand the exit of 28,000 US forces from South Korea, arguing that there was no justification for their continued deployment on the Korean peninsula. In contrast, the South Korean position is that any such formal end of the war would be essentially a political declaration that has nothing to do with the US-South Korea military alliance or the number of US forces stationed in South Korea.
While the US-North Korea negotiations are in uncertain territory, North and South Korea are resolutely moving towards peace and reconciliation. In an emotional address to more than 150,000 North Koreans at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium on September 19, President Moon Jae-in exhorted Koreans on both sides of the DMZ to reunite, saying: “We have lived together for 5,000 years and been separated for 70 years. We must live together as one people.”
In a highly symbolic journey, the two Korean leaders visited Mount Baekdu together — the most sacred site in Korean mythology. Chairman Kim Jong-un is expected to come to Seoul in December — a first-ever for any North Korean leader since the division of the peninsula. In a dramatic show of confidence in a peaceful future, the two Koreas would also bid jointly to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.
Both China and the US have welcomed the outcome of the Pyongyang summit. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stated that it produced positive effects easing military tensions and advancing the denuclearisation process.
President Trump was more exuberant in his remarks on Twitter, noting Chairman Kim’s vow to dismantle some of his nuclear installations and to allow nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations.
South Korea’s assessment is that the North Korean denuclearisation process is so highly publicised even within North Korea that it cannot be reversed. However, this may be wishful thinking, as North Korea has had no qualms in taking 180 degree turns in policy — such as walking in and out of the NPT, terminating the Six-Party Talks and closing the much-heralded Kaesong City Industrial Zone.
A second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un is now on the cards. Chairman Kim is carefully pandering to President Trump’s ego and may have a clear strategy to drag out the denuclearisation process and extract from the US a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War and considerable easing of the crippling economic sanctions as “corresponding measures”. It will truly be a highly watched battle of wits between Donald Trump, the Dealmaker, and Kim Jong-un, the Strategist!