Making sense of the inter-Korean Summit
The April 27th summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in was rife with symbolism. The two leaders shook hands across the demarcation line dividing the Koreas before stepping across it; they sat exactly 2018 millimeters across from each other on a table designed to look like two bridges merging together; and they planted a “unity tree” using soil from Mount Paektu in the North and Mount Halla in the South, then watered the tree with water from both the North’s Daedong River and the South’s Han River.
But the summit was not just symbolic. Concrete—albeit unspecific—commitments were made. A North-South liaison office will be established, separated families will reunite, and there will be a cessation of hostilities—specifically in the Yellow Sea where fatal attacks have occurred as recently as 2010. Most notably, both Koreas vowed to work together to achieve a denuclearized peninsula and to establish an official peace treaty to end the Korean War this year. Such a treaty will require an American cosign, as the 1953 armistice agreement that brought the War to a truce was not signed by South Korea.
The news was dizzying, leaving all who watched in a vertiginous state of skeptical disbelief and hopeful optimism. As developments continue to unfold, there are three essential questions to address in the immediate aftermath.
What is different this time around?
Many have been quick to point out that this is not the first time that leaders from North and South Korea have met. In fact, it’s the third. In 2000 and 2007, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, respectively. Commitments to work toward peace were made, but neither of those meetings amounted to any real breakthroughs. While there is always a possibility that this time will be more of the same, there are important differences to note.
First, this summit took place in South Korea, where it was televised live. The previous two were held in the Northern capital of Pyongyang, making Kim the first North Korean leader to step foot in the South. This was no small concession. Being out in the open in South Korea assumed an unprecedented level of vulnerability for the reclusive leader, who otherwise has only been seen or heard in highly-controlled appearances through North Korea’s state-run media. However, it also left him vulnerable at home. Even autocrats have domestic politics to navigate, and there was no telling what kind of atmosphere he would return to in North Korea after the summit.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated both nuclear and long-range missile capability. This allows North Korea to negotiate from a position of strength, which is perhaps why it is the first summit where denuclearization was put on the negotiation table. It is true that his father, Kim Jong-il, reneged on commitments to freeze its nuclear weapons program and allow inspectors to monitor its facilities, but those gambits were sensible from a security standpoint. Had North Korea neutered its nuclear program before it fully developed, it would have run the risk of being unable to defend itself against potential invasion—a line of propaganda the regime has long broadcast, and may continue to do so in perpetuity. Now, however, should the government ever feel the need to re-nuclearize, it can. That kind of leverage is a profound departure from past summits, and one that hints that the results this time could, in fact, be different.
What’s Trump got to do with it?
Americans are unique in their ability to look anywhere in the world and see their reflection. It was no surprise, then, that a lot of people saw the summit as an autostereogram; blur your eyes enough and the images of Moon and Kim reveal the face of Donald Trump.
Trump does deserve credit—more than some want to admit, and less than others want to believe. Unlike Obama or Bush before him, Trump maintained steady attention on North Korea. Both Bush and Obama neglected North Korea under the guise of “strategic patience” and refused to talk without preconditions. These approaches clearly and demonstrably failed—which Obama himself conceded at the end of his second term. To Trump’s credit, he didn’t continue the same failing approach of his predecessors, and vocalized a willingness to talk with Kim early on in his campaign. These, plus his general unpredictability, no doubt exerted some degree of influence on inter-Korean diplomacy.
But there’s more nuance than the idea that Trump flexed and Kim cowered into cooperation. Trump’s maximum pressure did not succeed the way he and his supporters claim. North Korea still got around sanctions and their economy still continued to grow, however slowly, alongside their nuclear capabilities. If anything, Trump’s approach was one of many factors that coalesced into the ongoing breakthrough in relations.
Timing has been everything. Progress on the peninsula requires a confluence of amicability between both Koreas and America. There was momentum on all sides after the 2000 inter-Korean summit, where an eight-point agreement committing to peace and eased military tensions was signed by both Koreas—sound familiar? But after 9/11 and Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, America became inattentive and North Korea cinched shut its small aperture of openness. It’s also likely that North Korea would have reneged no matter what until it achieved sufficient nuclear capability.
Ill-will between North Korea and the Bush administration also crippled the 2007 inter-Korean summit. When Obama was elected, he maintained the same essential shape of Bush’s North Korea policy, and South Korea elected back-to-back hardline conservative presidents, effectively shutting down diplomatic dialogue with the North for a decade.
Now, all the necessary pieces have aligned. Shortly after Kim Jong-un rose to power, he announced his byungjin policy that stressed parallel development of North Korea’s nuclear program alongside its economy. The nuclear half of that policy has been achieved, and now he is shifting to economic development. Meanwhile, president Moon ran on a platform of openness with the North, and Trump has given the Koreas room to work things out. Then the Pyeongchang Olympics provided an opening for cooperation, and both Koreas seized the opportunity. Now that North Korea has demonstrated to some degree of reliability the capacity to strike America with a nuclear warhead, Kim Jong-un has a level of negotiating confidence that his father never did.
Trump played a part in this, but most of the credit belongs to Kim and Moon. They both took substantial political risks by meeting in the way they did; those who shoulder the most risk deserve most of the reward.
What does this mean for the future?
Whenever one is looking at North Korea’s international relations, a healthy dose of skepticism is required. They have done exceptionally little to assume the posture of a good faith actor, and as such it is reasonable to expect that this round of rhetoric could also prove to be hollow. In that case, no analysis is really necessary; North Korea’s relationship with America and South Korea will revert back to where it was in 2017—nuclear tests, missile launches and bombastic threats.
But if this time is different, then what? A peace treaty will likely follow, leading to perhaps one of the most shocking and incalculably bizarre Nobel Peace prizes ever. East Asia will experience an unprecedented level of stability, and inter-Korean cooperation—in economics, sports, and maybe even travel—will become the norm.
This begs the question of reunification. The division of the Koreas following World War II is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. On a historically-scaled timeline, reunification seems inevitable—the shared history and ethnic bond dwarfs the 73 years of separate Korean identities. Still, it’s hard to imagine a single Korean government any time in the near-future. Politically, socially, culturally and economically, North and South are on such wildly different tracks that meaningful reconciliation feels as distant a reality as terraforming Mars.
More likely, the two Koreas will stay separate for the foreseeable future, with the North following the footsteps of China’s economic reforms while still maintaining the Kim regime’s grip on the central nerve center of the country’s politics. That may not be the inspirational storybook ending, but it would still be remarkable progress.