September 2018 Inter-Korean Summit: Preliminary Results

On September 18-20, 2018, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in with a representative delegation visited Pyongyang, where he held talks with DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. This is the third inter-Korean summit during the Moon presidency, and for the first time the two leaders did not meet on the demarcation line. The South Korean delegation can be compared with the delegation that arrived at the summit in 2000. Together with top-level talks a series of meetings took place between representatives of the military circles, as well as businessmen and cultural workers.

By the level of fanfares the September summit was only slightly inferior to the first summit of 2000. The North Korean side provided a beautiful picture: Kim met Moon at the plane's ramp, showing respect to the guest and his age, and after the official part the two leaders went to the Mount Paektu, sacred for Koreans. There were a lot of solemn words, too. According to Moon, the nuclear-free Korea is already near, and Kim spoke about the approach of the "era of peace and prosperity."

Let’s say, that that for Moon the summit was needed more than for Kim. First, on the background of the difficulties in negotiations between the DPRK and the US, the Republic of Korea positions itself as a force without which Pyongyang and Washington cannot do anything. Only with the help of Seoul they can ensure the proper level of progress. Second, due to the significant difficulties in domestic politics, and especially in the economy, progress in inter-Korean relations is the only way for the South Korean president to strengthen his political positions and maintain a good rating that dropped from 80 to 50 percent over the past few months.

The results of the summit, presented in the so-called Pyongyang Declaration, leave a double impression. On the one hand, there are many declarative statements and unlikely promises like the joint holding of the Olympics-2032. Talks about possible launching of inter-Korean economic or infrastructure projects also remain "pointless conversations", as this requires a significant lifting of sanctions that is not in the competence of Moon Jae-in. At the same time, the Americans constantly stress, that the sanctions will be in effect until Pyongyang completely disarms.

Despite statements about the refusal of hostile actions, which the Moon administration interprets as a "de-facto termination of the war," the Declaration is not a legal document equivalent to the classic "peace treaty" or a document that officially signifies the end of the Korean War. The reason is simple. The Article 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea extends its territory to the entire peninsula, and the National Security Law treats the North as an anti-state organization, and therefore Pyongyang cannot be officially recognized as an equal partner in inter-Korean negotiations.

Kim's return visit to Seoul, if it happens, will be a historic event - all previous meetings of the leaders of the North and South took place either at the DMZ or in Pyongyang. But the question is how to circumvent the National Security Law, which treats the DPRK as an "anti-state organization," whose leader should be arrested and judged as a war criminal at the first opportunity? At one time, it was the reason that Kim Jong-il's visit failed in 2000, and today the domestic political situation in South Korea is more complicated and more unpleasant for the authorities than under Kim Dae-jung.

Many of Kim's statements were addressed not to Moon, but to Trump. The DPRK is ready to close the missile test site in Tongchang-ri and allow foreign inspectors there, as well as "in case of reciprocal steps from the US" it can liquidate the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, the main known nuclear facility of the DPRK. And now the president of South Korea goes to the USA in order to deliver the North Korean message to the American president, and the Seoul media consider the outcome of the summit as prerequisites for the further development of the US-North Korean dialogue.

On the other hand, the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain, signed by the ministers of defense and aimed to prevent accidental clashes, is an extremely important step towards reducing military tension. In fact, the DMZ again becomes demilitarized, and also the buffer zone extends to the disputed maritime border area where most incidents occurred, including the well-known events of 2010. Moreover, the confidence-building measures between the military are strengthened, communication channels are open and the parties are going to take "all measures to prevent any collisions and conflicts with use of military force in any of the spaces." Properly the signing of this agreement makes this summit a significant step further, leading to ease the inter-Korean tensions.

The North and South also intend to change the format of separated families meetings - periodic personal meetings will be replaced by permanently functioning points, and in the future - via video communication. Although this issue of inter-Korean relations affects only a small group of persons, separated by the war, its humanitarian significance is great.

Summarizing the results, the September 2018 summit is a landmark event, but for all its significance it is a step on the long staircase that leads to the resolution of inter-Korean and regional confrontation. There will be many more such steps, and the legacy of the 70-year-old split cannot be overcome so easily.

As for the long-term perspective, there is a continuation of the warming course, which began with the New Year's speech of the DPRK leader in January 2018. A bad peace is better than a good quarrel, and although the timing and scale of the DPRK denuclearization is not an easy matter, de-facto the situation corresponds to the Russian-Chinese concept of double freezing, when the parties are inclined to dialogue and refrain from actions that aggravate the situation.

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