Six ways for North and South Korea to keep up the momentum for peace
John Barry Kotch says the initial excitement over the summits on the Korean peninsula resulted in little concrete action, but progress can still be made by working towards demilitarisation alongside denuclearisation
A 90-day window of opportunity from the promulgation of the Panmunjom Peace Declaration on April 27 to this week, which also marks the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean war armistice on July 27, has closed while the Korean peninsula remains an armed camp. Unfortunately, nothing has changed on the ground with the growing likelihood that the progress made during the first half of 2018 will slip away unless the two Koreas once again step up to the plate.
If the militaries of the two Koreas actually hold talks, as agreed to in the Panmunjom Peace Declaration, with a view to “carry[ing] out disarmament in a phased manner” and “bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”, one immediate goal would be to reduce the number of North Korean troops and artillery holding Seoul hostage, in exchange for thinning out the ranks of South Korean forces, with an appropriate adjustment in US troop levels stationed further south.
In short, demilitarisation would bolster the effort of denuclearisation by providing immediate and tangible benefits. It will show that the nuclear issue cannot be viewed in isolation, and vice versa. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin with the potential for synergy.
Watch: North and South Korean leaders pledge peace and denuclearisation
In this regard, North Korea has reportedly started dismantling a missile-engine test site at Sohae which has been described as “an important first step towards fulfilling a commitment” made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to US President Donald Trump at the Singapore summit. Correspondingly, what better way to demilitarise than to begin at the Panmunjom truce village by:
- Convening high-level meetings between military officials from the two Koreas to discuss plans for demilitarisation, as provided for in the Panmunjom Peace Declaration;
- Instituting prior notification and observation of troop movements when military exercises resume;
- Undertaking joint demilitarised zone patrols and demining the area;
- Razing Quonset huts dating from armistice negotiations and holding meetings alternately in the more congenial setting of the South’s Peace House (Freedom House) and the North’s Panmungak on a permanent basis or pending its replacement;
- Instituting a new Panmunjom protocol under which saluting rather than staring down members of the opposing military would be the norm, reflecting respect rather than enmity;
- Issuing reciprocal invitations for delegations from the two sides to attend Liberation Day (August 15) ceremonies in Seoul and Pyongyang respectively.
The Panmunjom Peace Declaration also committed the two Koreas “to actively pursue” trilateral meetings with the United States and/or quadrilateral meetings with the US and China, with a view to “turning the armistice into a peace treaty and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime”. The appropriate time and venue to proffer such an invitation to the two powers would be at the scheduled Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang this fall. For the US, it can’t come too soon.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not leave Pyongyang a happy camper during his recent visit. Notwithstanding Kim Jong-un’s effusive missive to Trump ballyhooing “epochal progress”, Kim did not deign to even meet with Pompeo in Pyongyang. Nor was Pompeo provided with a declaration on the number and location of nuclear or missile sites, a timetable for denuclearisation or a mechanism for verification, the ostensible goal of the Singapore summit.
Meanwhile, Pompeo’s United Nations drop-by last week to implore Security Council members to maintain “maximum pressure” with respect to denuclearisation was an effort to address the reported illegal transfer of refined petroleum products at sea greatly in excess of limits imposed by the Security Council’s sanctions committee.
As for China, while President Xi Jinping has spoken positively of the results of the Singapore summit, terming it “a major step in the political process to resolve nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula”, Beijing appears more focused on North Korea’s survival and the elimination of the US military presence in the South than on the process of denuclearisation per se. Still, Xi is closely following developments, with Kim paying an unprecedented third visit to China this year after the Singapore summit.
Watch: 65 years after the armistice veterans recall horrors of the Korean war
Albeit offstage for the moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the other key leader in the denuclearisation process and is slated to meet with Kim later this year. Having successfully negotiated with a North Korean leader (Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father) to gain the elder Kim’s agreement to a three-year missile moratorium in 2000, Putin brings needed credibility to the negotiating table. Russian expertise as a nuclear power would also be a useful asset in implementing any future denuclearisation agreement.
Further, according to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who recently visited Pyongyang to prepare the groundwork for a possible Putin-Kim summit later this year, “Russia highly estimated the Panmunjom Declaration produced by the inter-Korean summit and is prepared to contribute to its implementation”. This comes at a time when North Korea is on the agenda for the just-announced Trump-Putin Washington summit as well.
If the first half of 2018 featured the dual highs of a North-South Panmunjom meeting and a Trump-Kim Singapore summit on the wings of Olympic diplomacy, looking ahead, the second half’s tentatively scheduled trifecta of summits (Moon-Kim in Pyongyang, Putin-Kim in Moscow, Putin-Trump in Washington), while likely less “head-turning”, promises to be no less significant.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant