By Taehwa Hong
For a cold-hearted dictator who killed his half-brother and uncle, Kim Jong-un looked incredibly composed and suave. The 4.27 meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un was imbued with joy and relief. Despite North Korea’s record of walking back on every promise it made, there are good reasons to be optimistic this time. The Panmunjom Declaration explicitly mentioned “complete denuclearization,” making it clear that the end goal is denuclearization, not a roll-back or a freeze. Kim Jong-un seems to be very different from his late father Kim Jong-il, at least stylistically. He even managed to change South Korean hearts and minds; hours after the summit, South Korean media was flooded with observations that Kim appears to be “sincere and truthful.” While it remains to be seen if he is politically different from his father, it is not unrealistic to hope for a generational shift in Pyongyang’s politics. Most importantly, the two Koreas have embarked on a trust-building process after years of confrontation which drove the peninsula to the brink of war. Cultural exchanges, reunion of separated families, and actual demilitarization of the DMZ lower the possibility of an accidental clash by inspiring mutual trust.
However, the Panmunjom Declaration raises more question than it answers. First, what are the true implications of “ending the war”? It is not the first time the North Koreans broached the idea of a peace treaty. In fact, Pyongyang has been relentlessly pursuing a formal end to the Korean War. Most recently in 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il agreed to replace the armistice with a permanent peace agreement. The negotiation expired after North Korean coupled the issue with the U.S.-Korea alliance. A peace treaty opens a window for Pyongyang to demand a diminished American role in the peninsula; while the agreement itself may not affect the United States Forces Korea (USFK), a U.S.-North Korea non-aggression pact—which Kim has been pushing forward along with a peace treaty—is certain to influence the nature of the alliance. In fact, Moon Chung-in, the Special Adviser for Foreign Affairs and National Security to President Moon, recently wrote on Foreign Affairs that “it will be difficult to justify their (U.S. troops) continuing presence in South Korea after its (Peace Treaty) adoption.” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also commented that the presence of American troops in Korea will hinge on the administration’s discussions with American allies and North Korea. As President Moon repeatedly assured, Kim may not explicitly demand withdrawal of all American troops from Korea. Nonetheless, it would be surprising for Kim to not seize the opportunity to touch upon issues that are domestically controversial in the South, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and transfer of Wartime Operational Command. Kim could use the opportunity to decouple the U.S.-Korea alliance. Equally importantly, a formal end of the war is nothing more than a paper pigeon. Some argue that the status quo is a precarious state of war that may explode at any point—but that would be the case even with a peace treaty. Did North Korea bomb Yeonpyeong Island and sink South Korean warship Cheonan because the two Koreas are “still at war,” or because of Pyongyang’s internal political dynamics? Once a peace treaty is signed, can we expect North Korea to stop testing South Korean resolve to defend itself through local aggressions? History tells us North Korea is restrained by military deterrence, not its own promises and agreements.
Second, what does the term “complete denuclearization of the peninsula” exactly mean? There are perennial concerns that the definition of “denuclearization” may differ between North Korea and U.S.-Korea allies. North Korea always insisted on using the term “Denuclearization of the Chosun (Korea) Peninsula,” demanding that Seoul remove all American nuclear assets. This may be puzzling as all American tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991. North Korea has been essentially demanding the complete removal of any platform for the American nuclear umbrella, including American troops—the reinforcement of which entail nuclear assets—and nuclear submarines and stealth bombers that participate in joint military exercises. Previous agreements included clauses clearer than the mere “confirmation” of a common to realize a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” through “complete denuclearization.” The 1992 Joint Declaration of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while coining the controversial term “denuclearization of the peninsula,” at least explicitly banned nuclear tests, production, manufacturing, possession, storage, deployment and usage. The 2005 9.19 agreement clarified North as the principal agent of denuclearization. While it remains to be seen whether Kim will abuse the term yet again to defy “unfair, unilateral denuclearization,” the clause surely offered him such leeway. If the Blue House was so confident that Pyongyang’s denuclearization drive is unprecedentedly sincere, President Moon should have leveraged Kim into accepting the term “denuclearization of the North.” In the same vein, Seoul put an additional burden on Trump by failing to provide even the most elementary framework for denuclearization. Granted, the nuclear issue is traditionally between Pyongyang and Washington, rather than Seoul. It would have been unrealistic to expect President Moon to announce a roadmap to denuclearization in the 4.27 summit, but declaring a tentative time frame or a platform for denuclearization would have helped his American ally. After all, he did so with the declaration of the end of war (within this year). There is simply too much ambiguity regarding the denuclearization process for Trump to work on.
Third, is the so-called Maritime Peace Zone in the West Sea a worthy project? The idea, which most likely entails the joint fishing area beneath the Northern Limit Line (NLL), also warrants scrutiny. On the surface, the agreement seems innocuous; the two Koreas will be sharing fish near the NLL, a de-facto maritime border between the North and South. Proponents claim that this plan would prevent military clashes with the North, which has historically denied the legitimacy of the line. Granted, deadly crossfires occurred near the area in the past, taking South Korean lives. However, the very definition of territorial integrity requires risking armed conflict to defend it. Furthermore, North Korea does not have commercial fishing ships; all vessels belong to the Workers Party, and its “fishermen” are often North Korean naval officers who were directed by the government to feed themselves. Therefore, the “fishing ships” are more often than not armed. The fog in the area makes it even harder to distinguish if a ship is unarmed or armed, North Korean or South Korean. The joint fishing area potentially allows North Korean naval assets to roam the West Sea without restriction. It does not matter if North Korea formally acknowledges the NLL in return; it would be still gaining de-facto control of crucial rich fishing rounds and strategic waterways that undermine the whole purpose of the line. In fact, the same idea was brought up in the 2007 high-level talks, resulting in a comic scene whereby South Korean representatives desperately blocked the map of the agreed fishing area from being presented in a room full of reporters. When finally revealed to the press, the agreement faced severe political backlash in South Korea. It is unclear how President Moon will maneuver this potential political landmine.
Fourth, what are the true implications of inter-Korean economic cooperation? Increased economic cooperation can potentially mutate into sanction relief. The two leaders exploited a potential loophole in the United Nations Security Council sanctions that do not bar investments in North’s public infrastructure by agreeing to take “practical steps towards the connections and modernization of the railways and roads,” but the project would still require UN approval and have to be non-revenue generating for North Korea. It is also concerning there are already talks of reopening the Kaesong Complex, which was closed in 2016 February after North’s ballistic missile test. South Korean companies are excitedly preparing to rush back to the complex, which, while open, annually provided over $100 million to the North Korean regime. It is therefore concerning that Kaesong will be hosting a joint liaison office, which are usually situated in capital cities. North Korea’s traditional trade partners such as China and Russia do not need an official sanction relief to find an excuse for resuming trade with Pyongyang. Given Beijing’s latent concerns of being bypassed in the denuclearization and peace process, Xi Jinping will be tempted to prolong the negotiation by offering Kim financial package as an insurance in case negotiation fails, which will undermine Kim’s incentive to denuclearize.
The Panmunjom Declaration’s focus was largely on inter-Korean cooperation rather than denuclearization. Much more specific details were provided for the inter-Korean cooperation projects, while virtually none was provided on the denuclearization front. Leading up to the summit, the Blue House’s policy line was “denuclearization first, peace later” to maximize pressure on Pyongyang. The summit could send a wrong signal that the priority has been reversed. The distorted frame of peace makes denuclearization look like a mere component of the peace process rather than a separate agenda by itself; the one and only mention of denuclearization belongs to a last subset of the last clause, the overarching theme of which is establishing a permanent peace. The peace process has traditionally been the U.S.-Korea alliance’s capstone leverage for the grand bargain: denuclearization in return for diplomatic normalization and permanent peace. Seoul might have just given up crucial leverage to finally ending the cycle of denuclearization talks.
In essence, the geopolitics surrounding the peninsula has not changed. North Korean nuclear weapons continue to pose a grave security threat to the region. Kodak moments are good, but we need more substantial results. South Korea and the U.S. need to calibrate the denuclearization process and peace process so that the incongruent timeline does not become a source of tension between the allies. Seoul need to repel Kim Jong-un’s trap of “Korean solidarity against external forces.” So far, President Moon and President Trump demonstrated extraordinary dexterity in coercing and persuading Kim to engage in dialogue. It is worthwhile continuing administrative contacts with the North Koreans, but their extent should hinge on the U.S.-North talks. The outpouring of jubilance, while completely understandable, should be restrained by objective interpretation of Kim’s calculus. Our attention should be on Kim’s cold calculation, not his cold Pyongyang noodle.
Taehwa Hong is an international relations student at Stanford University. His research focuses on East Asian security and the Middle East. The views are the author’s alone.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.