Author: Troy Stangarone, Korea Economic Institute of America
Heading into the third inter-Korean summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had one overriding objective: restart the negotiation process between the United States and North Korea that had stalled since the Singapore summit. By all accounts, Moon seems to have succeeded. US President Donald Trump praised the outcome of the inter-Korean summit and suggested that he would likely meet with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un again ‘quite soon’.
Prior to the summit, the talks between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs had broken down. North Korea insisted that the United States take part in a formal declaration ending the Korean War before it would take further steps towards denuclearisation, while the United States insisted on more progress on denuclearisation — concessions that neither side were willing to make.
In Pyongyang, North and South Korea made progress on inter-Korean economic engagement, sports diplomacy and family reunions, as well as the reduction of cross-border military tensions and the dismantling of North Korea’s weapons programs. It is the latter efforts that are providing the momentum needed for Trump to push forward with further talks.
The progress on inter-Korean economic engagement is perhaps more aspirational than it appears. The agreement to hold a ‘ground-breaking ceremony’ to reconnect the inter-Korean rail lines and roads by the end of the year is less ambitious than Moon’s original goal to reconnect the routes this year. And the agreement to normalise operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and restart tourism at Mount Kumgang when the ‘situation matures’ reflects the current constraints of international and US sanctions on inter-Korean engagement.
On the people-to-people level, North and South Korea made surprising progress by agreeing to develop a permanent reunion centre at Mount Kumgang and to facilitate the development of video reunions for separated families. Unlike other divided countries after World War II, Koreans have been unable to have any significant interaction with their relatives on the other side of the border. If implemented, this would be a positive step to begin to address the challenges of familial separation.
North and South Korea also agreed to make a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics. While a bold proposal, any successful bid will need to see real progress on dismantling North Korea’s weapons programs and continued progress on inter-Korean relations. It will also need to address concerns about human rights, affordability and financing, and whether South Korean investment in North Korea would be better spent on projects that would have a more significant impact on economic growth. Still, the prospect of the world coming to Pyongyang in 2032 could serve as a strong incentive for Kim Jong-un to continue making progress on a range of fronts.
On the nuclear front, Kim offered to dismantle the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon if ‘corresponding measures’ are taken by the United States and recommitted to the dismantlement of the Tongchang-ri missile test site. Significantly, North Korea offered to allow ‘observation of experts from relevant countries’ at the Tongchang-ri site. This offer is an important confidence-building step and a potential indication that North Korea understands that some type of inspection regime will be needed for a successful peace process to take place.
The two Koreas also agreed on measures to reduce tensions around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and lessen the chance of a conventional conflict breaking out. These measures include the cessation of live fire drills and training exercises above the regiment level within five kilometres of the DMZ, a no fly zone and a joint remains recovery program.
Despite these developments, there remain reasons to be cautious. North Korea’s offer of a weapons testing moratorium is less than it appears. Kim had already declared that North Korea had concluded tests and had previously offered to dismantle the Tongchang-ri site. This is not to say that there hasn’t been real progress, but rather that there still appears to be a reluctance on the North Korean side to take significant steps at this point.
With a second US–North Korea summit all but assured, Trump will have an opportunity to advance negotiations further. Trump will need to convince Kim to freeze the production of new missiles and fissile material, while including undeclared sites such as the Kangson uranium enrichment facility in the dismantlement program. Similar to the Iran nuclear deal, he will also need to convince Kim to turn over North Korea’s fissile material. Trump could also use his rapport with Kim to encourage him to commit to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in public.
The United States will also need to make some hard decisions. Trump reaffirmed during his September 2018 UN address that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea has dismantled its weapons programs. But it is becoming clear that if there is to be progress on the Peninsula, it will be a step-by-step process on North Korea’s terms. The United States will need to determine what concessions it is willing to make in return for North Korean actions, including which sanctions it is willing to provide temporary waivers for.
Moon has found a way to keep negotiations between the United States and North Korea moving forward. But the hard work still lies ahead. It is up to Trump and Kim to make more substantive progress than was seen in Singapore if the peace process is to find eventual success.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.