Expert views: Inter-Korean summit

The first inter-Korean summit in 11 years takes place on Friday, 27 April.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

The Asia Media Centre asked experts about the significance of the summit in comparison to the planned Trump-Kim meeting, and about the possible outcomes.

Read the expert responses:

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Denuclearisation a topic full of complications

Dr Shine Choi, Massey University (Auckland):

As someone who studies North Korea and international politics, and as a Korean citizen, I have mixed feelings about the hype around North Korea’s denuclearisation, the inter-Korean summit (especially talks around how a peace treaty might be on the table), and particularly about the magic-bullet success/failure narrative arc around the Trump-Kim meeting.

On one hand, I want to remain open-minded, believe in fairies and other amazing magical outcomes – because, why not? The Korean division is man-made, and one would think men can undo some of their mistakes (men in the gendered sense).

The failure of the previous inter-Korean summit, during the period of former president Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, was in many ways, related to the lack of magical thinking by all those involved. This led to the narrow focus on economic projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and tourism packages that encouraged replicating earlier, problematic neocolonial relations between developed and developing countries.

Things are not as simple as North Korea or the Kim Jong-un regime simply giving up its nuclear programme, the two Koreas signing a peace accord to officially end the Korean War, or whatever else headlines are making us think are of foremost importance.

My concerns are about how:

  • North Korea is less ostracised than we think. North Korea has been, with Cuba, active in anti-imperial, anti-colonial liberation struggles around the world, and is part of the post-colonial, “weak state” solidarity movements that have had various institutional formations.
  • United States security concerns and economic interests in the region are more than that of denuclearising or containing North Korea. Any US military manoeuvre under the Pacific Command (which also involves Japan) has a China threat lingering around the corner.
  • Whenever we focus on war or impending war, or resolving the crisis, there are many significant domestic or political issues that get sidelined. So, for me, what has been fascinating to watch is the difference in international (English-language news) and Korean news the last few weeks. While the international media coverage of Korea was all about North Korea, the summit, possible war; the Korean media was breaking under its #MeToo moment. This, for me, was very interesting and jarring. It raises a whole lot of questions.

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Trump-Kim summit is the main event

Dr Stephen Epstein, Victoria University of Wellington:

The summit between Kim and Trump is infinitely more important. We’ve already had summits between South Korean leaders and North Korean leaders twice. They didn’t really accomplish a lot, so I wouldn’t regard this meeting as necessarily historic. A meeting between Trump and Kim will be historic, and regardless of what South and North Korea settle on in this summit, it means little if the Kim-Trump summit is a failure. So, to that extent, there is not even a comparison.

Impact on South Korean politics: If Moon is seen as being a very effective and capable communicator, he will continue to enjoy the popularity that he already has. He is doing well, for a South Korean president, to maintain the popularity that he enjoys this far into his presidency. The South Korean public can be harsh on its presidents. There has been a general pattern of presidents beginning with a high level of popularity and then seeing that spiral downward.

Possible outcomes: I do expect South Korea will be working hard to come up with some sort of solution that makes the South Korean public feel as safe as possible. I think the primary objective from the South Korean side is to ensure that that war does not break out down the track.

I expect that the inter-Korean summit will end on some sort of positive note in which both sides express mutual affirmations and support, and a strong desire for peace, and issue a joint statement or two, which we’ve seen before, but again this will largely have symbolic value as what is crucial comes later.

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President Moon’s domestic standing could be strengthened

Dr Patrick Flamm, Victoria University of Wellington:

The inter-Korean summit is significant and important in its own right. It is fair to assume, however, that both Koreas have been in secret negotiations for months and are only announcing the results of these talks now at the summit. After all, both countries agreed to broadcast the whole event live to the world.

In contrast, a Trump-Kim summit would be unprecedented and would, while it is far from clear whether it will actually happen, raise the stakes quite a lot.

Impact on South Korean politics: Depending on the concessions granted by Kim Jong-un, President Moon Jae-in’s domestic standing could be strengthened. Generally, there is broad public support for the way how his administration has been approaching the negotiations so far.

A successful inter-Korean summit will probably lead to further inter-Korean meetings and talks, raising the question of whether Moon’s administration will spend its political capital and energy mostly on inter-Korean issues. After the impeachment of his conservative predecessor last year, he was voted into office on a reformist platform focusing on improving the economy and fighting corruption. Just weeks ago, in the context of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Moon’s willingness to pay for North Korea’s involvement resulted in some criticism about his government’s priorities and spending.

The significance of Kim Jong-un visiting the South Korean side of the DMZ: I would argue that Panmunjom is a neutral area really. The summit venue, the Peace House, is within the DMZ and just a stone's throw from North Korean territory.

When Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun went to Pyongyang for the previous two inter-Korean summits, they faced considerable criticism over the symbolism of them paying a visit to Kim Jong-il. This time both sides have tried to avoid similar pitfalls.

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Inter-Korean summit largely symbolic

Dr Van Jackson, Victoria University of Wellington:

The inter-Korean summit is a positive step, but it’s not as important as the much-discussed Trump-Kim summit for three reasons.

First, the entire history of North-South relations has been bounded by – sometimes even determined by – the overall valence of US-North Korea relations. North Korea has never seen South Korea as kin or as an equal, viewing them instead as a “puppet” of the US. To the North, the beginning and end of its problems involve the US, and South Korea is a pawn in North Korean strategy. That’s simply historical fact, and it means that the North-South summit cannot possibly be as consequential as the Kim-Trump summit.

Second, the Trump-Kim summit is how North Korea will negotiate its nuclear weapons, if it does at all. North Korean media have repeatedly stated that South Korea is not the right counterpart to discuss matters of “high politics”, such as its nuclear programme.

Third, there have been two inter-Korean presidential summits before – in 2000 and 2007. In both instances, the fact of a high-level meeting generated a great deal of optimism, but it had no impact on the strategic situation, and ultimately South Korea is very divided politically about North Korea, which makes inter-Korean rapprochement inherently fragile. So a North-South summit is good, but it’s not decisive, it’s largely symbolic, and it’s ultimately quite fragile. Contrast that with the Trump-Kim pending meeting, which is high stakes and unprecedented. It’s equally likely to lead to a peace treaty or nuclear war.

A lot of people don’t know this, but South Korea isn’t even a signatory to the 1953 Armistice Agreement. At best, South Korea’s role is to encourage a harmonious environment on the Korean Peninsula and possibly be a broker between the US and North Korea. So far that’s what it’s doing. But we shouldn’t exaggerate its role, or what can be achieved ultimately. We’ve been in the precise place we are now many times before in the past 30 years. In every instance, unwarranted optimism made solving the nuclear issue harder.

Possible outcomes of the inter-Korean summit: I expect North and South Korea will agree to gradual increases in human and commercial exchanges across the border, as well as confidence-building measures aimed at stabilising the larger situation. The wildcard is whether North Korea will use the inter-Korean summit to signal its intentions for a Trump-Kim meeting.

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Joint-declaration to terminate Korean war could be made

Dr SungYong Lee, University of Otago:

President Moon himself admits that the inter-Korean summit is a stage-setting meeting for the US-North Korea summit.

The message that I get from the South Korean government’s actions is: “Let Donald Trump be the star. We get peace instead.”

This is understandable, in that North Korea has never considered South Korea as the counterpart for negotiations on denuclearisation. Nuclear weapons were, from North Korea’s perspective, developed in response to the US’ aggression. Thus, the final resolution should be made with the US.

Possible outcomes: As a Korean national, I am deeply interested in whether the summits will end up with the peace agreements (or official termination of the inter-Korean war). The South Korean government seems keen to go that far, and I can see good signs that US President Donald Trump is seriously considering the option as well. If such declarations are made and the follow-up actions are taken (eg. the launch of a US embassy to North Korea) this will fundamentally transform geopolitics in Northeast Asia.

I believe the South Korean government will leave the most dramatic news to the Trump-Kim summit. Instead, the inter-Korea summit is likely to focus on the issue of the Korean Peninsula.

A joint-declaration of the termination of the Korean war could be made in the summit, although official documentation will need the commitment from the UN and other relevant actors. The declaration may include the statement of “mutual non-aggression”.

There may be a call for the resumption of the six-party talks or creation of four-party talks (South Korea, North Korea, China and the US), and US security assurance of North Korea.

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China losing its patience with North Korea

Professor Robert Patman, University of Otago:

While North Korea declared recently it would stop nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and shut down its nuclear tests, it did not indicate it would give up its nuclear arsenal or even halt its production of missiles.

What we have seen is a helpful preliminary signal that the talks have the potential to be productive, but Kim Jong-un and his predecessors – his father and his grandfather – were not above being ambiguous, and apparently trying to extract concessions from such ambiguity.

It would be very difficult for Kim to actually satisfy US conditions of going down the path of denuclearisation, which apparently what the Trump administration is demanding and indeed the Chinese government is demanding. 

It would be interesting to see what sort of things Kim is really interested in. He is clearly under a lot of pressure at the moment and he must fear to some degree an American military attack, although I’m not sure that’s really viable.

What is clear is that Kim’s fragile economy is at huge risk from very tough sanctions that have been put in place, and I think also the Chinese government has signalled to Kim that their patience is not unlimited.

But at the same time, I’d be surprised if a dictatorship like one he represents would seriously move towards irreversible destruction of the nuclear weapons programme that North Korea has developed.  

After all, it has been developed at great sacrifice for the economy and is seen as a legitimising device for the regime. And also, Kim will be very aware of the fate of other dictators who confronted the US in the past but subsequently gave up nuclear weapons; I’m talking here about Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. He must be aware that his leverage and his chances of survival are enhanced by hanging on to nuclear weapons rather than effectively disestablishing them. But that’s basically what the Trump administration seems to be demanding.

China intensifying pressure: North Korea’s aims for the talks are still unclear. Maybe Kim is seeking to defuse tensions. I personally think he is responding as much to China as he is to pressure from the United States. He may be seeking to set up sort of deal where he can reduce the pain of sanctions that his country is facing. I think he’s seeking to do all of this, however, without actually getting rid of nuclear weapons.

There are real signs that the Chinese have been losing patience with the regime. For a long time, China took the view that whatever the frustrations, Kim Jong-un was a strategic ally of China and he was ultimately, from the Chinese perspective, a source of strategic stability. I think they’ve reversed that perspective for a range of reasons. 

I think the Chinese leadership have become more divided. They think that the presence of Kim in his present incarnation, is actually a force of instability in the Korean Peninsula. They also realise that China’s standing in the region could be compromised by too close an association with Kim. I think that’s why they have been intensifying the pressure. 

China is basically North Korea’s life support system – it provides food and energy.

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Views expressed are personal to the authors.

– Asia Media Centre