Last Friday’s meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was a historical moment. Kim’s steps onto South Korean soil were an extraordinary sight, embodying the diplomatic process that preceded the visit — tentative, but forward moving — as well as a likely anticipation of what will follow — unexpected retreat as Kim and Moon stepped back into North Korea, which was followed by a resumed journey into the South. The key to success is remaining fixed on ultimate objectives and moving toward them, gradually, but inexorably, together, so that an irreversible reversal is impossible.
There was symbolism aplenty in Friday’s meeting. The two leaders planted a tree together, using soil from both countries and watered it with water from a river in each country. They sat at a newly refurbished table in the Peace House of the Demilitarized Zone that measures 2,018 millimeters wide at the center to commemorate the year of the meeting. Their chairs were decorated with a carving of a unified Korean Peninsula. Dinner featured food from the hometowns of each of the three South Korean presidents who met their North Korean counterparts, as well as rosti — a traditional Swiss fritter — to remind Kim of his school days in Switzerland. The meal ended with a mango mousse dessert, whose bright colors evoked the arrival of spring, a symbol of the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, with a silhouette of the Korean Peninsula overlaid upon it.
The Panmunjom Declaration, issued at the end of the meeting, was not as detailed. Among its provisions, it called for: a formal end of the Korean War by yearend; joint efforts toward the “common goal” of denuclearization; establishment of a “joint liaison office” in the Kaesong region; “more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels”; a visit by Moon to Pyongyang later in the year; and resumption of reunions for families separated by the Korean War.
It did not explain how the most important items — denuclearization and the end of the Korean War — would be accomplished, and that absence has intensified speculation that the symbolism of the summit will not be matched by substantial outcomes. A conclusion to the debate over the meaning of “denuclearization” is now more important than ever. Does Kim seek the end of U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia and the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella from those allies, as some suggest? If so, then there has been no progress and there will not be any.
Equally unclear is the fate of economic sanctions as reconciliation proceeds. North Korea seeks a gesture of good faith, like an end to the maximum pressure campaign that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul agree brought Kim to the negotiating table. At their meeting in Amman, Jordan, on Monday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that they will not loosen pressure until Pyongyang implements denuclearization measures, nor should they.
Sticking to that line will be difficult given the warm feelings and high hopes created by the summit. U.S. President Donald Trump will be pressured to maintain the diplomatic momentum established by the Moon-Kim meeting and Trump’s desire to make history may override the caution necessary to ensure that this moment does not end up like other moments in which the North “committed” to denuclearization. Kim’s grandfather agreed to the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and sought the same goal in the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States. Kim’s father supported the 2005 Chairman’s Statement at the Six Party Talks that also aimed to denuclearize the peninsula. Those deals, along with other more limited steps, also failed to achieve their objectives.
As this process unfolds, Japan is in a difficult position. This country has direct stakes in talks — its security will be affected by decisions about the U.S. presence in the region, and there is the question of the abductees — but it is not involved in the negotiations. Moon said that he raised the issue of the abductees in his meeting with Kim — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed thanks for doing so in a phone call after the summit — and Trump pledged to do the same. Kim reportedly told Moon of his readiness to meet Abe at any time, but that assurance, like all others at the meeting, must be tested to be proven.
Japan, like other governments, must not be seen as opposed to peace and progress. It must work closely with the U.S., South Korea, and China to ensure that North Korea commits to irreversible denuclearization and then follows through on that promise. Then, Tokyo should be able to work with Pyongyang to resolve other outstanding issues to forge a genuine and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.