No one has worked as hard as South Korean President Moon Jae-in to sustain and advance the momentum of talks between the United States and North Korea. At times, it appears those discussions are even more important than inter-Korean talks between himself and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Moon’s commitment to the nuclear dialogue was evident after his meeting this week with Kim. But while Moon, Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump applaud the meeting’s results, observers note the unresolved issues that hang over the nuclear talks, the most important of which is North Korea’s commitment to the actual dismantlement of its nuclear weapons.
Moon traveled to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim on Tuesday. Three days of meetings began with Kim greeting his guest at the airport, then traveling with him down streets lined with bystanders. In addition, Moon made a speech at a huge rally in which he repeated his call for peace between the two Koreas. He also traveled to Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of the Korean people and of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.
At the summit’s end, the two men signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration and then held a news conference. They agreed to move toward “an era of no war” and announced a number of agreements toward that goal. Among them are measures to reduce tensions on the Demilitarized Zone, such as closing 11 guard posts and ending military drills along the Military Demarcation Line; developing inter-Korean railroad lines within a year; restarting the Kaesong industrial complex and establishing a family reunion center at the Mount Kumgang tourist area. They also promised to expand culture and sports exchanges and environmental programs.
Moon invited Kim to visit Seoul and the North Korean leader agreed to come as soon as possible: The South Korean government interpreted that to mean that Kim would make the first-ever visit to Seoul by a North Korean leader by the end of this year if all goes well.
At the news conference, Moon said Kim would proceed with the permanent and verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear programs. According to Moon, Kim promised to invite international observers to verify destruction of the missile engine test site in Tongchang-ri. Their declaration added that Pyongyang is willing to take “additional measures” if the U.S. keeps promises that Trump made at his Singapore summit with Kim.
Those comments were greeted with applause. Trump tweeted that Kim’s promises are “very exciting,” while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the “reaffirmation of the Singapore joint statement of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” He added that the U.S. “is prepared to engage immediately in negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations.” He offered to meet North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in New York City at the United Nations General Assembly and invited North Korean representatives to meet the new Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, in Vienna at soon as possible.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was more constrained, noting that “we hope that the meeting will lead to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and urged that Pyongyang “fully and swiftly” implement the Singapore summit agreement.
Despite the seeming progress in Pyongyang, two critical questions remain unanswered. First, what does North Korea mean by “denuclearization”? Is it prepared to dismantle its nuclear weapons? Or does it seek the elimination of the U.S. nuclear extended deterrent as well? Many believe that the North wants to equate the two nuclear programs — the declaration refers to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — and demands that they be treated equally. That is a subtle way to gain international acceptance of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability — it implies that the two are equivalent — and is unacceptable to Japan.
Second, even if the North is sincere, how will that process move forward? What must each side do to get the other to respond? Reportedly, Trump promised in Singapore to issue a statement that hostilities had ceased and Pyongyang is waiting for that to be uttered in public before it will take substantive next steps, such as allowing international monitors into the Yongbyon reprocessing facility. Such a declaration could be used to discredit the U.S. and U.N. presence in South Korea, possibly leading to their eventual disappearance, and get the sanctions relaxed, which would eliminate pressure for Pyongyang to comply with its obligations to denuclearize.
Kim has given Moon a sense of progress and encouraged him to increase efforts to bring the U.S. along in efforts to engage North Korea. He has also given the South a reason to step up economic cooperation, even though it could violate U.N. sanctions. In other words, North Korea appears to be driving deeper the wedge between Seoul’s ally and partner in Northeast Asia.