It was an historic moment indeed, when Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea by crossing the Demilitarized Zone, since the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953. The shaking of hands between Mr Moon and Mr Kim at Panmunjom was lauded as catalysing the path towards a peaceful and prosperous peninsula. Peace and prosperity were two key themes featuring in the third inter-Korean summit – the first and second held in 2000 and 2007 respectively – and both sides committed themselves towards a peaceful resolution of conflict.
Key hallmarks of the Moon-Kim dialogue included the televised opening remarks both away from and across the negotiating table. Aside from the light-hearted conversation between Kim and Moon at the negotiating table, both leaders pledged towards ‘actively cooperat[ing] to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula… bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice.’ This pledge for peace was concomitantly framed with the key word within which these talks have been shrouded: denuclearisation.
Both Mr Moon and Mr Kim ’confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula’ yet this very statement leaves the door wide open for what type of ‘denuclearisation’ may actually take place. Bearing in mind the disparities between Pyongyang and Seoul’s definition – the former wishing for denuclearisation of the Peninsula, the latter calling for denuclearisation of North Korea – such claims need clarification. Of course, the USA withdrew its nuclear weapons stationed on the Peninsula during the 1990s, but by denuclearisation of the Peninsula, what Pyongyang wishes is for the removal of nuclear threat (particularly from the USA), and perhaps that in order for ‘complete, verifiable, irreducible dismantlement’ to take place, the USA must start the process.
Plans to sign a peace treaty have been put in place by these talks, and this was widely expected. Discussion of issues such as families divided by the Korean War – and plans to generate their reunion – were one part of the Moon-Kim discussion, with both states agreeing to endeavor in the resolution of such ‘humanitarian issues’. Yet even if a peace treaty were signed, further questions remain: firstly, is the dream of unification plausible given the entrenchment of the Kim regime within North Korea? Secondly, if the North were to dismantle its nuclear programme in its entirety, what would this mean for the Kim regime? This is particularly relevant given Kim Jong-un’s statement only last week that the state plans to shut down its only nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. These questions remain unanswered by today’s historic summit. In addition, the deleterious human rights situation within North Korea was not mentioned explicitly in the joint Moon-Kim declaration, further questioning whether the North Korean regime plans to enact any changes on this front.
Crucially, the Moon-Kim summit is an important precursor for the proposed meeting between President Kim and US President Trump due to take place within a few months. Today’s discussion did serve as a useful ground for Kim to test the waters of dialogue with the USA’s ally, but it also opened the door to a plethora of questions. What form will ‘permanent and solid peace regime’, to which Mr Kim and Mr Moon allude in today’s declaration, take? In addition, will Mr Kim raise the issue of bilateral and international sanctions in his meeting with President Trump, and use the encounter as an opportune time to catalyse the easing of sanctions in order to boost his domestic economy? Economic development forms a crucial half of his byungjin policy of parallel nuclear and economic development – Mr Kim stressed last week how the North Korean state had already achieved the former. We must also not forget how with North Korea, things can change so rapidly: past promises of denuclearisation, such as in 1994, were not fulfilled.
Will 2018 be any different regarding North Korea’s foreign policy, particularly in this age of Trump? Only time will tell, and one should not rush towards awarding President Trump the Nobel Peace Prize. And why should it reach the hands of Mr Trump, and not, say, President Moon? As Kim Jong-un himself wrote in a guestbook this morning at Panmunjom: ‘a new history begins now.’ Today was an historic moment indeed, but history cannot predict the future, and nowhere is this is more relevant than with the case of North Korea.