Inter-Korean Summit: A historic turning point to where?

April 27, 2018 will be surely recorded as a historic day in the annals of international relations. As scheduled, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the two presidents of the DPRK and the ROK finally shook their hands at the Peace House in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area, where an armistice rather than a peace treaty was signed in 1953. Legally speaking, the two Koreas are still technically at war, engaged in a frozen conflict having existed for 65 years.

As it is the first time for the North Korean leader to set foot on the South Korea soil, accordingly, it is far more than a symbolic than many media reported when the entire world is closely watching the field scene in which the two leaders were talking to each other easily and friendly. More than a top leaders’ meeting of the rival Koreas for the first time, the Kim-Moon summit has a historic meaning of seeking a practical and considerate way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula that will lead to the final peace returned to the whole region. Previous inter-Korean summits were focused on the meeting itself of the leaders and the inter-Korean relations and cooperation. The denuclearization process was discussed in the form of six-party talks, which involved the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan, but have been suspended since late 2008.

Yet, North Korea made a U-turn since the beginning of 2018 when Kim stated, “We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success.” His remarks were unexpectedly made the world a little bit surprised, but the dimensions could be perceived from three major factors. First, regionally President Moon Jae-in’s “moonlight” policy aims to improve inter-Korean relations and it now works partially. Second, internationally the increasingly tough sanctions against North Korea also work well. As we know, since July 2016, the United Nations Security Council has passed 11 punitive resolutions against Pyongyang, ranging from military embargo to economic sanctions. Third, personally, Kim is convinced that his country has completed the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power means a real nuclear deterrence in his hand.

Given all the discussions above, Kim has appeared more confident and much more transparent than ever before only after his recent trip to Beijing where he met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jin-ping, the paramount leader of China. According to the press release, Kim expressed his willingness to commit to denuclearization talks with Moon and Trump, as scheduled in April and in May. Equally, during the following meeting, Kim further made it clear that his country has no reason to possess a nuclear program if its security is guaranteed and military threats toward it are removed. More recently, Kim spoke at the third Plenary Meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) last week that North Korea would suspend nuclear and missile tests and close down its main nuclear testing facility in Punggye-ri, where all of its six nuclear tests were conducted over the past years.

Evidently, Kim’s trip to Beijing and his meeting with President Xi have impressed him and Kim’s entourage that the real power of a state eventually comes from the economic strength backed up by high-technology. Therefore, another key matter high on the agenda of the Moon-Kim summit is setting the stage for a peace process on the Korean Peninsula. First, the two Koreas are expected to review ways to turn the current armistice agreement into a peace treaty with a view to declaring an end to the Korean War. It is reported the summit under the slogan of “Peace, a New Start” which aims at making a new history of peace beyond division and confrontation. In an analysis of the statements made from both sides, the summit will possibly agree to pull guard posts and heavy weapons out of the DMZ which is filled with razor-blade fences, tank traps, mines and watchtowers as well as hundreds of thousands of heavily-equipped troops. Suppose that this summit can make progress on the consensus on denuclearization and all missile programs, the following discussions on inter-Korean economic cooperation are likely to be opened and expanded to cover humanitarian issues such as the reunion of families separated across the heavily guarded border.

Given this, the summit of April 27is surely significant step in resolving Korean Peninsula issues. Historically, it is the third inter-Korean summit and the first time for it to be held on ROK’s territory. The two previous summits were held in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007 respectively. As a Chinese old saying goes that “past experiences, if not forgotten, serve as a guide for the future generations”, the first task then will likely to confirm DPRK’s commitment to denuclearization between the top leaders of the two countries. Arguably, the unity and friendship presented by the two Koreas in the opening ceremony of the Olympics would sufficiently prevail over their age-old enmity and mistrust. Yet, this inter-Korean summit clearly can’t sidestep the nuclear and missile issues since it needs to lay down the bottom line for the next and more vital summit between Kim and Trump in May. Due to this, Kim would likely insist that because the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is closely related to the long-term security threats faced by all parties, especially by the DPRK, it is a fair and reasonable requirement to resolve the legitimate security concerns of the DPRK. Therefore, it is politically and morally righteous to achieve the denuclearization gradually. That is China’s long-standing proposed “dual-track approach”, namely, the realization of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the simultaneous establishment of a peaceful mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.