WASHINGTON – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met last Friday for the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom. It has been 11 years since the last such encounter between leaders of the two countries. Following their meeting, they issued the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, in which they declared that “a new era of peace has begun.” The declaration included a number of agreements that focused on reconciliation between the two Koreas, including increasing inter-Korean dialogue at all levels (including their militaries), family reunions and various confidence-building measures.
Of significant importance was a declaration by the two leaders to pursue a formal conclusion to the Korean War by the end of this year through either trilateral dialogue that includes the two Koreas and the United States or a quadrilateral meeting that includes China. The days following the summit were filled with the images of the two leaders’ firm handshakes and embraces, suggesting that we may be standing at a cusp of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.
As much as that may be everyone’s hope, last week’s inter-Korean Summit will likely turn out to be only the beginning of a long, complicated process that ultimately culminates in peace on the peninsula. And the road to that end is filled with various land mines, any of which could not only derail the peace process but also bring us right back to the state of tension that we found ourselves in just a few months ago.
One thing noteworthy about the Panmunjom Declaration is its overwhelming focus on inter-Korean reconciliation. In short, the declaration mentions little on how to address other North Korea-related issues that concerns the rest of the world. For instance, while the declaration discusses denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at the very end, it lacks any specifics.
By the same token, while the declaration addresses “humanitarian concerns” between the two Koreas, it hardly says anything about other humanitarian concerns related to the North Korean regime, including its oppression of its own people and the Japanese abductee issue. Simply put, the Panmunjom Declaration deals with inter-Korean issues but almost nothing else.
Yet the declaration includes elements that could seriously bind the hands of the United States, Japan and other stakeholders that are not party to the declaration in the coming weeks and months. For example, the suspension of “hostile military actions” between the two Koreas that is mentioned in the Panmunjom Declaration will make it difficult for the U.S. to conduct military exercises with South Korea moving forward, even if they are just routine. Not only does North Korea now have a reason to demand a cancelation of the exercise or a shrinkage in its scope, it also gives Pyongyang an easy way out to back out of its commitment in the declaration should the U.S. refuse.
Similarly, the declaration’s reference to the denuclearization of North Korea is so vague that it raises questions on how Kim defines that term. For example, if the reference to denuclearization by North Korea was made on the assumption that the U.S. would enter into denuclearization negotiations with North Korea viewed as a nuclear power, it would be a non-starter for the U.S., which consistently has taken the position that it will not acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear weapon state.
Yet the declaration, by stating the two leaders’ intention on refraining from resorting to militarily hostile actions, has made it difficult for the U.S. to reject negotiations with North Korea. By the same token, the declaration has also made it very difficult for the U.S. to resort to a military strike option, even a very limited one, vis-a-vis North Korea even in the event that the planned Trump-Kim summit breaks down. Even if the Trump-Kim summit produces an agreement on principles for the road to North Korea’s denuclearization, how to design a step-by-step process toward the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea that the U.S. insists upon will be a subject of intense negotiation.
Furthermore, it is hard to decipher what North Korea will demand in return for its good behavior. At minimum, it will likely insist on an easing of the economic sanctions that are imposed on it. Furthermore, there is already media speculation on whether the force structure of the U.S. military presence in South Korea will be a part of the denuclearization negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. Disagreement on any of these issues — and more — will give North Korea an excuse to backtrack from the commitment that it made in the April 27 declaration.
The inter-Korea summit has made one thing clear — it has raised the stakes for the planned summit between U.S. president Donald Trump and Kim even higher. The next few weeks will be critical for Japan, as it will be profoundly affected by the outcome of the Trump-Kim meeting even though it will only have a limited direct influence on the developments on the Korean Peninsula.
Given the less-than-optimal outcome of Abe’s meeting with Trump in mid-April, the next few weeks may be the first real test for Abe’s government in its ability to influence the Trump administration as it heads toward the summit with North Korea.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.