When the North Meets the South

On April 27, Kim Jong-un will have a meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha noted that the upcoming meeting of the leaders could start a new era in the two countries’ history. “For the first time in 70 years, the supreme leader of the North will visit South Korea, and this will be the third meeting of the two states’ leaders in history”, she said. Konstantin Asmolov, Valdai Club expert, believes that one should not expect any stunning results from the event: rapid, Libya-type denuclearization will not happen, the classical version of a peace treaty between the North and the South is impossible, political contacts will be limited in any case.

“Classical” peace treaty is impossible

The North and the South are most likely to sign, at least for ceremonial purposes, a document that should resolve the difficult situation of 1953. Let us recall that the ceasefire agreement was signed without the participation of the Republic of Korea, and the odious regime of Syngman Rhee wanted to fight until the victorious end. In turn, against the background of worsening inter-Korean relations, in 2016 North Korea announced its withdrawal from the agreement. Thus, the North and the South are technically still at war.

This problem needs to be settled somehow, but the classical version of a peace treaty is impossible, because it presupposes equality of two partners – the two countries making peace with each other. South Korea constitutionally claims the territory of the entire peninsula, and from this point of view, the DPRK is an anti-state organization illegally holding the northern part of the country. Therefore, the “conservatives” will not forgive Moon for a “classical” peace treaty, finding such a concession unacceptable. It is more likely for the parties to announce the absence of hostile intentions towards each other or to find another streamlined formula.

Rapid Libya-type denuclearization is out of the question

The North Korean leadership has repeatedly stated that it has not any objections concerning denuclearization, if the need for strategic nuclear forces disappears. The need for nuclear weapons has always been explained by the containment of the American military threat, and I should note that Pyongyang is right on this, considering the balance of forces and military budgets of the DPRK, the ROK, and the US. In this context, complete and rapid, Libya-type denuclearization is out of the question. First, because everyone remembers how Gaddafi ended. Second, because the American approach is as follows: you disarm, and then we will think whether you were sincere enough and maybe will take some reciprocal concessions.

Therefore, the North Korean plan suggests that denuclearization will go step-by-step, extended in time, and every step perpetrated by the state in this direction should be immediately encouraged by response actions of the US and its allies. As a result, we are rather talking about freezing the nuclear programs than denuclearization. Obviously, the US does not like this option – from its point of view, Pyongyang will simply procrastinate, waiting for Trump’s successor, with whom some other strategy could be possible.

The North and the South: only humanitarian cooperation

The problem is that only humanitarian cooperation is possible between the North and the South. Any political contacts are going to be limited, since Seoul is still dependent on Washington, and if Moon acts too independently, the US administration will find enough leverage to hold him down. The opportunities for joint economic activity are blocked by the current sanctions regime, so it is easier to say what is not prohibited to import and export to the North. Of course, if the DPRK complies with the moratorium for a long time, Russia and China could raise the issue of softening the sanctions, but it would take half a year at best.

In this situation, only humanitarian contacts remain, which look good, but give little. The North no longer needs any humanitarian aid, because it has reached the level of food self-sufficiency due to some agricultural development. Any specific humanitarian aid is blocked by sanctions: even spare parts for medical equipment are prohibited, not to mention any goods that can be considered dual-purpose products.

The meetings of divided families were cult events, but they affect a small number of people, which eventually decreases, because according to the rules, only direct relatives can communicate, and not their descendants. Cultural exchange remains, but the tours of both South Korean artists in the North and North Koreans in the South are being censored: everything that has anything to do with politics is removed, and eventually both sides sing about nature, weather and love. I hope, however, that further exchange in the sphere of culture and sports will be more extensive.

DPRK-US summit: negotiations in terms of surrender?

The US-North Korean summit is constantly being shifted to a later date, and this is understandable, because such an event needs to be prepared seriously. Seoul obviously tries to present the inter-Korean summit as an important step before the meeting between Trump and Kim. But this is due to the role of the “intermediary” that Seoul is trying to play. While talking about decisions, we must understand that the US public perceives the future summit as negotiations in terms of surrender, because due to inaccurate information from South Korea, there is a supposition that the ungodly regime cracked under the influence of sanctions. Meanwhile, the very fact of negotiations is a big concession, and to justify it, Trump must accept the “surrender” (or what he will be able to sell as such to the American public opinion). At the same time, even the concessions announced by Kim are taken for granted or as a cunning plan that should not be trusted.

That’s why both the fact that the summit will take place and that the parties could agree, are under substantial doubt.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.