By Troy Stangarone
In a move that had been expected in recent days, North Korea extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un “at the earliest possible date.” With President Moon having sought to use the Winter Olympic Games in Pyongchang as a means to advance inter-Korean relations and encourage U.S. talks with North Korea, the invitation presents South Korea with an opportunity to see if the opening created by the Olympics can be widened into a more substantive dialogue over North Korea’s nuclear program.
If the invitation from Kim Jong-un presents South Korea with an opportunity, it also comes at a time when the international pressure campaign may finally be beginning to have an impact on North Korea. North Korean exports to China fell 80 percent year-on-year to $54 million as the latest rounds of sanctions began to be implemented. While the decline is only one month, it clearly signals to Pyongyang that Beijing is intent on enforcing the current level of sanctions to a significant degree and that it will need to find new sources of revenue.
As Seoul considers a summit with North Korea, it should be cognizant of the North Korean regime’s objectives and the pressures it faces. The increasing economic pressure North Korea is under is most likely driving Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Moon Jae-in. As sanctions continue to take hold, North Korea’s objectives for any summit will most likely be tied to efforts to reduce the growing economic pressure. Even small concessions designed to induce talks might provide Pyongyang with the lifeline it needs to fend off pressure to have serious negotiations over its weapons programs.
Additionally, sanctions relief would enable Pyongyang to control the nature of any future negotiations and to create division between the United States and South Korea. If Pyongyang were successful in convincing Seoul to lessen the economic pressure, the international sanctions regime would weaken and bring North Korea one step closer to its goal of normalizing its nuclear status and having sanctions removed. President Moon has committed to maintaining maximum pressure until North Korea takes definitive steps towards denuclearization. As long as this position is maintained, North Korea should be unable to use a summit to advance its objectives.
Any summit meeting between North and South Korea should include significant coordination between Seoul and Washington. The two allies will need to consider what issues they would like to push North Korea on, how the summit might help lead to broader talks on denuclearization, where there might be flexibility in the alliance to engage North Korea, and how North Korea might seek to divide the allies or put them in a position that would be hard to refuse. As long as the allies are on the same page and given significant consideration to North Korea’s potential tactics in advance, North Korea is unlikely to turn the summit to its advantage.
While all indications are that President Moon will accept Kim Jong-un’s invitation, there is also a downside should he decline in the absence of renewed North Korean provocations. Relations on the Korean peninsula are tenuous at the moment and the growing risk of military conflict over the last year was real. If President Moon were to decline the invitation it could quickly end the current pause in tensions on the peninsula and potentially heighten them. It could also undermine future efforts at negotiation if South Korea is seen as rejecting talks with North Korea.
However, the opportunity to meet with Kim Jong-un also presents an opportunity that previously did not exist. The United States and South Korea have both insisted that their hope is to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea. The United States’ policy is one of maximum pressure and engagement, but there have been few prospects for engagement. If there is to be a real diplomatic solution, there will need to be a direct line of communication with Kim Jong-un. Few in the North Korean system can speak with authority and gauging Kim Jong-un’s own intents will be critical in determining if a negotiated solution is possible. If an inter-Korean summit took place, it might be sobering for Kim Jong-un to be told “no” to his face to any demands he might make. That is something he probably is not accustomed to and may influence his thinking regarding the limits of his power.
Additionally, a summit meeting will provide South Korea, and by extension the United States, the ability to gain insight into North Korea’s thinking and the pressures it faces. While Pyongyang is unlikely to directly state how sanctions are impacting the country, to a keen observer there may be clues to the real challenges North Korea faces and the pressures they are under based on the topics that are raised.
There is also a good reason for the United States to support a summit meeting between North and South Korea. If economic pressure does not work and North Korea is unwilling to commit to denuclearization talks, it will be critical for President Moon, and South Koreans more broadly, to know that all avenues for a peaceful resolution were explored if the use of military force becomes necessary. If the United States were to pressure President Moon not to go and then conduct a military strike that resulted in South Korean casualties, it could do unrepairable damage to the alliance.
North Korea has suggested a summit at the earliest date, and it would be in South Korea’s interest to move for a quick summit as well. In his New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un said that North Korea would spend this year building up the regime’s ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. It is unlikely that Pyongyang would agree to intrusive inspections to ensure that any lull between now and a summit meeting is not being used to build up the regime’s arsenal. A summit, perhaps shortly after the close of the Paralympics, would also have the advantage of allowing the U.S.-Korea exercises to go forward as scheduled, something which South Korea should make clear to North Korea is not negotiable for a summit meeting.
In the end, the question of whether President Moon should accept Kim Jong-un’s invitation and go to North Korea is not just a question of how a summit meeting might undermine efforts to use economic pressure to bring North Korea to the table, but also about the costs of not accepting the invitation. If the Moon administration ultimately accepts and goes into a summit with North Korea under the premise that it is designed to explore the prospects for a negotiated solution and to work to advance diplomacy rather than to an effort to strike new agreements for inter-Korean cooperation similar to prior summits, the benefits of taking part in a summit most likely outweigh risks of not going.
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.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.