By Donald Manzullo
Did any real progress come out of the April 27 summit meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un? Optimists will say “yes”: the two sides dramatically agreed to formally end the Korean War and to declare a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Pessimists will say “no”: the Panmunjom Declaration seems heavy on pledges to ‘facilitate,’ ‘improve,’ and ‘cultivate,’ better relations but is light on concrete commitments. But, asking if Panmunjom produced significant achievements may be to ask the wrong question. A better question might be where the April 27 Inter-Korean summit fits in the pattern of previous summits and what it is pointing towards, particularly in regard to the intended summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
The April 27 summit was full of symbolism, imagery, and rhetoric. That should not be brushed aside to look for “real” progress. Symbolism is important in itself. The strong appeal to common history, seen in the ancient costuming of the honor guard; shared attachment to geographic features in backdrops for the talks, such as Mount Paektu and Mount Kumgang; and the repeated commitment to unification of the peninsula put North and South Korea in the same space. This is clearly a better environment for cooperation than would be a focus on the warring systems of democracy and totalitarianism, or capitalism and communism. The two sides agreed that they are both Korean and did not claim exclusivity to be the “real Koreans.”
Another point of context is that both sides made concessions to hold the summit. This is the first time that a North Korean leader has set foot in South Korea since 1953. Kim Jong-un made a concession in agreeing to meet in Panmunjom rather than in his capital. Kim Jong-un also met Moon Jae-in as an equal, which is a departure from previous North Korean rhetoric that South Korea was merely a puppet regime with which it would not deal. North Korea has sought to negotiate directly with the United States and to ignore South Korea. The United States has long insisted that North Korea would have to deal with South Korea on a bilateral basis before it would deal with North Korea. That demand has now been met.
To set up the meetings with President Moon and President Trump, Kim Jong-un has also made the concession of a freeze on nuclear and missile testing. In 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that a sustained absence of testing could set the stage for talks. Also, significantly, North Korea dropped its opposition to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. Previously, North Korea had said that it would not talk until the exercises were suspended. For their part, South Korea and the United States have made the concession of agreeing to talks before North Korea has taken concrete steps to begin a process of denuclearization. Their previous position had been that without such action, they would not participate in “talks for talk’s sake.”
The final point of context needed to understand the April 27 “Panmunjom Declaration” is Kim Jong-un’s insistence that previous agreements had “fizzled out” because they had not been fully implemented. He reportedly said in his meeting with Moon Jae-in, “There are people who are skeptical that the results of today’s meeting will be properly implemented…I hope we can have open-minded talks on issues of concern and produce good results, not the kind of results we saw in the past that were not implemented and made us start from scratch again.”
To which previous agreements was Kim Jong-un referring? Certainly not to the 1992 Joint Declaration in which North Korea pledged “to not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.” And not to the 2005 Joint Statement in which North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT).”
More likely, Kim Jong-un was referring to the 2007 Inter-Korean Summit Agreement (in which Moon Jae-in was involved) to “promote economic cooperation, including investments, pushing forward with the building of infrastructure and the development of natural resources.” The 2007 Agreement, with language almost exactly reappearing in the Panmunjom Declaration, calls for “inter-Korean economic cooperation projects on a continual basis for balanced economic development and co-prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.” By the way, the commitment to formally end the Korean War is not new. That was also part of the 2007 Agreement. Replacing the Armistice with a peace agreement will require action by the United Nations, which is a signatory to the Armistice.
Kim Jong-un remarkably noted in his conversation with Moon Jae-in that the North Korea road system is “embarrassing” and that North Korean visitors to South Korea for the Winter Olympics were impressed by the South Korean high-speed trains. These remarks were unusual and almost certainly calculated. What Kim Jong-un may have been saying was in effect: because of economic pressure from South Korea and the United States, North Korea is lagging economically. Peace on the peninsula requires that economic assistance be given to North Korea.
Kim Jong-un said in his 2018 New Year’s speech that North Korea had achieved its nuclear ambitions and was now shifting to economic development. That is logical. Kim’s long-term survival depends as much on an improvement in North Korea’s woeful economic situation – partly caused by sanctions but mostly caused by decades of mismanagement and misplaced priorities – as it does on security, whether through a nuclear deterrent or security assurances that it considers adequate.
The Panmunjom Declaration sets the board for future summits and negotiations. The most important question now is how much denuclearization is North Korea willing to offer for how much economic help?
Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.