As South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un head into a historic summit this week, the big question is how sincere Pyongyang is in efforts to achieve lasting peace. Here’s what to look out for in testing Kim’s sincerity.
First, and most simply, form matters. The South already achieved a victory of sorts in persuading Kim to come to the South (or more technically to the southern part of the demilitarised zone or DMZ) for the meeting rather than having Moon become the third South Korean president to venture to Pyongyang without a reciprocal visit. More important, however, will be the titles being used. North Korea always refers to itself as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. But it insists on referring to its neighbour as south Korea (with a small s) rather than as the Republic of Korea or ROK. If the DPRK refers to Moon as president of the Republic of Korea, it would signal a willingness (finally) to treat the government in Seoul as a sovereign equal with the same level of respect it demands.
What’s on the summit agenda will be another test. Seoul has announced its desire to discuss a peace treaty with Pyongyang to replace the 65-year old armistice, and US President Donald Trump has given his “blessings” for Seoul to have such a discussion. Pyongyang in the past has refused to discuss this topic directly with Seoul, insisting that since South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice, it should not even have a seat at the table. Technically speaking, the armistice was signed by military officers representing the US/United Nations Command and the Chinese and North Korean People’s Armies – South Korean’s leader at the time, Rhee Syngman, refused to have his general sign since he did not want to stop fighting the North.
While Pyongyang usually acknowledges that the US and China should have a seat at the table, Washington’s long-standing position has been that the South must not only also be there but must have a leading role. The Four-Party Talks during the Clinton administration, aimed at replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, broke down over this. If the North is ready to finally acknowledge Seoul’s leading role in crafting a treaty to officially end the Korean war, this would be a significant policy shift and another important signal of Kim’s sincerity.
On Thursday, Moon said Pyongyang had dropped its long-held demand that the US withdraw its forces from the south in exchange for denuclearisation. However, it is likely that the North’s long-term goal remains the removal of US forces and its accompanying nuclear umbrella. If it has indeed dropped the demand it is presumably to serve its near-term interests – the lifting of US, UN Security Council, and ROK sanctions and the procurement of economic assistance.
Kim, under his Byungjin policy, has promised his people both nuclear weapons and economic development. He has delivered on the first part; now he needs to show some progress on the latter. But what is he willing to give in return?
The Moon administration has insisted that denuclearisation will be on the table and that a commitment to giving up Kim’s nuclear arsenal is required to move bilateral relations forward. In the past, Pyongyang has steadfastly refused to even mention the term denuclearisation in its dealings with the South, insisting that this is a topic reserved exclusively for Pyongyang and Washington. Will Moon stick to his guns? More importantly, will Kim give in on this point and at least allow some reference to denuclearisation to appear on the agenda and joint statement? This will be another important test of Kim’s sincerity (and Moon’s steadfastness). The bigger issue – each side’s differing definition of what constitutes denuclearisation – will need to be ironed out between Washington and Pyongyang, but acceptance of verifiable DPRK denuclearisation as a goal must come first.
Another thing to watch for is any reference to a missile and/or nuclear freeze. The question is not so much will there be a freeze, but what will be frozen? There has already been a de facto freeze on missile and nuclear testing. But will Pyongyang accept the possibility of a freeze on its nuclear and missile programmes? Halting tests is relatively easy to do (since Pyongyang has already announced its current round of testing is complete) and easy to verify, but Kim has also said his focus now is not on testing but on an accelerated production of nuclear weapons and missiles. Agreeing to halt these programmes, which would require inspections for verification purposes, would be another signal that Pyongyang is serious.
While a halt in nuclear and missile programmes is essential in the long run, it’s true that a halt in testing is an important first step – so a testing freeze in itself is not insignificant. It could stop things from getting worse. But, it is not sufficient to make things better. Senior ROK officials have said in private conversations that they will insist on a halt to programmes, not just testing. Will Pyongyang agree to this objective?
Even if the only initial agreement is regarding testing, Pyongyang in the past has not only argued but has showed its belief that a halt in testing does not apply to its satellite programme. The Obama administration’s “freeze for aid” Leap Day Agreement quickly fell apart when Pyongyang then announced a satellite launch in direct violation of UN Security Council sanctions against any form of missile or rocket activity. Will Kim agree that a missile freeze includes a freeze on satellite launches? Or will he plan a satellite launch in the near future to test how eager Seoul and Washington are to conduct talks. The latter is more likely than the former. ■
Ralph Cossa is president and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies at the Pacific Forum, Honolulu