Inter-Korean Summit: Not Really a Breakthrough
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

The inter-Korean summit held on Friday, April 27, on the border between the two states, has become an important milestone on the way to ease tensions around the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, the event, which was dubbed “historical,” will not overcome the root causes of the Korean crisis. The problems associated with the North Korean nuclear and missile program can only be resolved at a meeting of Kim Jong-un with US President Donald Trump, which is still in question. Such conclusions were made by the participants in the expert discussion on the results of the inter-Korean summit, held at the Valdai Discussion Club.

The meeting between the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in is of great symbolic significance for both sides. According to Andrei Lankov, professor at the Seoul-based Kookmin University, who participated in the discussion via video link, the South Korean government is conducting an active propaganda campaign, reinforcing the resonance of this event. “Positive feeling is injected” in every possible way, and the summit is presented as the beginning of a great change in relations between the two countries.

However, reality is far cry from propaganda efforts. In fact, no breakthrough decisions could be taken at this summit, although both sides would very much like that. Discussion of issues like Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear program does not make sense, because South Korea is not in a position to take any decisions on that. Moreover, even in economic cooperation, Seoul’s freedom of action is extremely constrained. Practically any attempts to boost cooperation in the economic sphere will be considered violation of the UNSC sanctions, Lankov said.

Therefore, the decisions mentioned in the two leaders’ declaration (the media reported on its signing a few minutes before the discussion ended), as the experts of the Valdai Club supposed, are rather abstract in nature, with an emphasis on the humanitarian sphere. The declaration, in particular, refers to the cessation of hostile acts against each other, the need to expand inter-Korean ties, and meetings of separated families.

But, according to Konstantin Asmolov, leading research fellow at the Korean Studies Center, RAS Institute for Far Eastern Studies, even abstract conciliatory declarations are a good result. At the end of last year, the situation was on the brink of war – the expert estimates its probability back then at around 44%, and now at 25%. “There is no absolute certainty that this tactical warming will grow into something larger,” he stressed.

As for the peace treaty, the desire for which is confirmed by the joint declaration, its prospects are very vague. Asmolov recalled that a classical peace treaty between the two countries is impossible, because the South Korean law treats the North Korean regime as an illegal group which seized five northern provinces of the country. Any move towards a de facto recognition of the DPRK will cause resentment of the conservative forces of South Korea and create serious problems for Moon Jae-in, he stressed.

So what is behind the present mutual desire of North and South Korea to take the path of reconciliation? The experts were unanimous: it was the militant rhetoric of Donald Trump, which frightened both Seoul and Pyongyang. Previously, the North Koreans believed that in case of war, the US would not strike first, as this would mean an immediate retaliation on Seoul, which is in the hitting area of the DPRK artillery. However, as Andrei Lankov noted, Trump has a reputation of a man who does not care about his allies, and this causes great concern in Seoul.

The US policy – whether a conscious bluff, or a sincere one – has worked. “Trump so intimidated both Pyongyang and Seoul that now they play four hands, accompanying to each other,” Lankov said. And the active demonstration of readiness for peace and dialogue by the two Koreas serves as a message to Trump that there are no serious problems between them, and that everything can be “solved in a human way.”

As was noted, the Kim-Moon summit did not bring momentous decisions which could ensure lasting peace on the peninsula. Such decisions should be expected from the meeting of the North Korean leader with Donald Trump. But there is a whole bunch of questions.

Obviously, under no circumstances Kim will abandon the nuclear missile potential, which the US demands. Too memorable is the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who made a deal with the West and lost not only power, but also life.

According to Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Korea (2005-2009), Vice-President of the Russian International Affairs Council, the issue of confidence to Washington is very acute. The US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty, TPP, is planning to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal. The US position on Iran is of fundamental importance for North Korea. This experience could contribute to the solution of the North Korean missile and nuclear program, but the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the deal would lead to a situation where Trump and Kim will have nothing to talk about.

However, despite all the complexities and pessimistic forecasts of experts (for example, during the discussion an opinion was expressed that it was impossible to prepare such a serious event in a month), Andrei Lankov believes that the Kim-Trump summit will take place: the preparation process is going on too actively.

In early April, the US media reported (and the State Department then confirmed and even published the photos on Twitter) that Mike Pompeo, former CIA director and now Secretary of State, travelled to North Korea to meet with the DPRK leader. The talks between Pompeo and Kim were needed to prepare a future meeting of the two countries’ leaders.

However, not everyone in the Trump administration wants peace with North Korea. According to Andrei Lankov, the “Bolton factor” is especially frightening. This is the reason why the Kim-Trump summit may end with a scandalous breakdown.

The expert said John Bolton, the US national security advisor, was “an extreme hawk.” Among the Americans, he got the nickname Bulldog, and former US President Jimmy Carter said the decision to appoint Bolton, who took office on April 7, was “maybe one of the worst mistakes that President Trump has made since he's been in office.” Bolton is known for his statement that a “preventive” bomb strike can be carried out against the DPRK.

Nevertheless, the US welcomed the “historical meeting” between the leaders of North and South Korea. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders even expressed hope that the talks will contribute to achieving peace. But whether the United States allows the birth of this unsteady peace is a matter that can only be resolved at the upcoming Kim-Trump summit.