The recent summit between the South Korean president Moon Jae-in and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang was their third meeting since March. To sustain the momentum behind inter-Korean dialogue, a fourth meeting is already being discussed, possibly to take place in Seoul in December. The intended impact of the summits is clear: by having a rapid series of encounters, Moon and Kim have established high-level talk as a new normal in the Korean Peninsula. The extensive confidence building and tension reduction measures along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) agreed to in the latest summit are the most noteworthy outcomes from the ongoing inter-Korean dialogue.
Yet progress in inter-Korean discussions has not compelled North Korea to take significant steps toward denuclearization. North Korea has offered a number of concessions to date that have all fallen well short of what the Americans expected, dealing only with the periphery of the North’s nuclear program, not the core capabilities. As the result, the two Koreas are not yet able to advance to the next stage on the inter-Korean agenda, namely the expansion of economic engagement, as the United States has made it clear that it would oppose progress on economic cooperation unless concrete denuclearization proceeded in parallel.
Despite these constraints, the political momentum created by the series of inter-Korean summits could compel the United States to continue to move forward, as indicated by President Donald Trump’s willingness to hold a second US-DPRK summit in the near future, possibly timed for the November midterm election. The result is a dialogue with North Korea that is increasingly divorced from denuclearization aims; it is an open question whether denuclearization can remain the central focus of diplomacy with North Korea. South Korea is willing to tolerate a much slower denuclearization process than the United States, so long as the inter-Korean talks can proceed in the background of relative stability.
Institutionalization of Inter-Korean Dialogue: Institutionalization of Peace?
While eyebrows were raised at the meager outcome on the denuclearization front, significant achievements were made at the Pyongyang Summit with respect to inter-Korean dialogue. In the statement released after the event, Moon and Kim agreed to expand the scope of economic and humanitarian cooperation, including the plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism project and to institutionalize the reunion of separated families by establishing a permanent facility for reunions in the Mount Kumgang area.
An even more striking achievement of the summit was a separate agreement reached by the two Korean militaries to reduce tension along the DMZ. In the annex to the declaration, the two sides adopted the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain.” It consists of confidence building and tension reduction measures such as suspending all ground and naval exercises in the environs of the DMZ, dismantling several guard posts in the DMZ, as well as establishing designated no-fly zones that, depending on the type of aircraft, range up to 40 kilometers from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). All the steps are to be put into effect starting November 1 unless the United Nations Command objects to the agreed measures.
The agreed confidence building and risk reduction measures stand in sharp contrast with the far more modest denuclearization steps spelled out in the same declaration, which lacked a detailed road map and clear timelines for action. North Korea did promise to dismantle the missile engine test stand and launch pad at the Tongchang-ri facility (also referred to at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station) and expressed a willingness to continue to take steps like shutting down the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center if the US took “corresponding measures.” These pledges fall well short of what the US administration has been seeking from North Korea since last June, namely a complete inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, material and production facilities, although it is also possible that North Korea is saving meaningful denuclearization offers for a second US-DPRK summit.
A likely condition North Korea may demand for shutting down the Yongbyon nuclear facility is the US signing of a declaration to end the Korean War. The idea is not necessarily anathema the two United States, but rather an issue of timing and negotiating tactics. The Trump administration has been entertaining this proposal if North Korea committed to fully declare its nuclear assets, or in the words of the former US Special Envoy to the DPRK, Joseph Yun, exchanging “declaration-for-declaration.” But the US never formalized the terms of such an exchange, possibly because it feared that declaring its intent to sign a declaration to end the Korean War would generate pressure to withdraw American troops from South Korea once—or perhaps even before—the document was signed.
While the US was hesitating, North Korea used the inter-Korean summit not only to formalize the idea of exchanging “measure for measure,” but also to lowball Washington with the offer on Yongbyon instead of agreeing to a full inventory of nuclear assets. The US is continuing to put pressure on Pyongyang to accept this step, but a full declaration is now highly unlikely. With South Korea’s implicit consent, North Korea has successfully made the declaration to end the Korean War the focal point of upcoming talks with the US as opposed to North Korea’s full denuclearization. If the second Trump-Kim indeed takes place, the focus on denuclearization could be further diluted.
In the Short Run, Not A Bad State of Affairs for Moon (and Perhaps Trump)
The tug of war between the US and North Korea is not entirely against South Korean interests. While the South Korean side seems frustrated by the lack of progress in denuclearization talks, it is more because of the accumulating backlog of inter-Korean projects waiting on the southern side of the DMZ rather than the fear of returning to the situation in 2017 if talks break down. Moon has succeeded in locking the two adversaries with little mutual trust in a diplomatic framework—no small feat given that merely a year ago the two Koreas were genuinely close to a war.
So long as the two sides are engaged in dialogue, North Korea cannot conduct nuclear or missile tests, and the United States lacks the justification for a preventive attack. At the same time, both seem to believe that time is on their side. North Korea believes that the increasing erosion in the sanctions regime will eventually render them ineffective, creating enough cracks and loopholes to facilitate business. Whereas the US is betting that sanctions—while imperfect—will have a significant impact on the North Korean economy, and therefore Pyongyang will eventually capitulate to its pressure. This equilibrium could continue if the two sides remain committed to talking to each other, which is clearly Moon’s main objective at this moment.
The affirmation of Seoul’s claim that it is in the driver’s seat also offers rich political dividends for Moon. The sense that South Korea holds the initiative on peninsular affairs is very appealing to his domestic audience, which accounts for Moon’s high approval rating. The inter-Korean dialogue paid off grandly for the ruling Minjoo Party of Korea in the regional elections in June, in which the conservative opposition was almost completely routed. Moon’s approval rating also shot up from the low 50s to over 60 percent after the summit, reversing a six-week decline caused by the worsening economic situation domestically. If there is a breakthrough in the US-DPRK talks then Moon’s approval rating could reach even higher.
Moon is offering Trump a tempting template for political success. The South Korean president’s achievement in pursuing Inter-Korean cooperation and North-South reconciliation has significantly reduced the risk of war on the peninsula and thus given the Trump administration diplomatic cover for the lack of progress it has made on the denuclearization agenda. So long as this continues to be the case, Trump can claim, however implausibly, that he has removed the North Korean nuclear threat, giving him time and space to explore riskier options to solve the North Korean nuclear issue.
A (Not So) Risky Path Ahead for Moon
Moon has succeeded in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula by locking the US and North Korea in a diplomatic framework—and he has been especially skillful in managing his relationship with Trump, incentivizing the mercurial US president to remain engaged in dialogue despite the lack of progress. Yet there is fear that unless Moon’s shuttle diplomacy delivers concrete results in the form of sanctions relief for Kim Jong Un and a denuclearization road map for Trump, the situation in the Korean Peninsula could revert back to 2017. North Korea has already “warned” Moon that it would levy a “stern judgment” on him if he fails to deliver on the promises he made.
Such a concern, while not misplaced, may be exaggerated. Moon is increasingly trying to insulate inter-Korean dialogue from denuclearization talks by leading the public to believe that progress in inter-Korean relations is irreversible. This is evident from the sheer number of inter-Korean summits that took place this year. While inter-Korean talks have not resulted in meaningful progress on denuclearization, it has mitigated tensions with North Korea, a genuine achievement that underlies the solid domestic support for Moon. Whether this is truly “irreversible” is, of course, up for debate.
Thankfully for Moon, Trump has claimed ownership of the process as he eyes political gains from talking to Kim Jong Un. As the result, the fallout from the potential breakdown in talks with North Korea would surely extend beyond Moon to Trump. At the same time, the rapid institutionalization of inter-Korean dialogue will prevent the maximum pressure campaign from attaining its previous strength. The prospect of peace is tantalizingly close, but so is that of North Korea maintaining its status as a nuclear weapons state.