Summit Diplomacy: The Korean Peninsula’s New Face Today

Diplomatic offensive

From the onset of this year the military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula made a U-turn from war to peace and, much to the surprise of many politicians and analysists, started speeding full steam ahead when it came to politics and diplomacy.  

“Summitry” has become a business card characterizing the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula today. Three summits have been held between the leaders of the Republic of Korea and the DPRK, three meetings between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping and the history –making summit took place between US President Donald Trump and the “Supreme Leader” of the DPRK Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. There are reasons for expecting that a new US-DPRK summit is just around the corner. A meeting between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin before the year is out is being planned, apparently, by the two countries’ protocol services.

The picture described above is an unprecedented phenomenon. There are hardly any other such powerful surges of top-level diplomatic activity in world practice. First of all, the leaders of the DPRK, the Republic of Korea and the USA launched a flurry of activity through direct personal dialogue in order to turn around the Korean situation from the brink of war on which it had been teetering for several decades, especially dangerously last year, toward a state of lasting peace and total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If these tasks are accomplished prerequisites and a launching pad will be created for forming a fundamentally new structure of international relations on the Korean Peninsula and in North-East Asia, truly and practically oriented towards ensuring durable peace and prosperity of this, extremely important and economically dominant region of the world economy.

A truly global, grandiose and unique task that merits the highest assessment and admiration.

Not surprisingly this writer has already been asked more than once who of the main protagonists of the optimistic drama unfolding before our eyes, how soon and in what sequence the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded: Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump or Moon Jae-in? 

Inter-Korean breakthrough

During the triumphant visit to Pyongyang by the Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in from September 18 to 20, 2018, when the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 was signed, including many significant agreements in various spheres and even an extremely important one in the military field, what struck Korea watchers was the fact that the theme of inter-Korean solidarity sounded even louder than before. Seoul and Pyongyang stressed more resolutely than previously the priority of the Korean nation’s independence and self-determination, and a commitment to solve their national problems and affairs themselves.

Perhaps a practical manifestation of the emerging new mood and practical realities in the relations between Pyongyang and Seoul plus the fact that the South Korean president had become truly aware of the priority of shared Korean interests and goals was the fact that Seoul had not notified the US in advance of the military agreement that was to be signed in Pyongyang, as a result of which the commander of the American forces in South Korea learned only post factum about this event of key significance for the security on the Korean Peninsula.

We visited Pyongyang in late September and discussed with a local political analysist there the outlook for inter-Korean relations in the light of the just-ended third meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in.

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The visit of the US Secretary of State to the DPRK took place at the second attempt: Pompeo was going to Pyongyang last summer, but his August visit was cancelled. The US Secretary of State was expected to persuade Pyongyang to provide a specific denuclearization timetable, and in response Washington would announce the end of the Korean War. However, in July, in response to a timetable request, the North Korean side declared that it was necessary to formally end the state of war between the two countries, and only after that talk about denuclearization.

It has to be stressed that our interlocutors gave high marks to the event and were clearly optimistic about the future. In their comments on the agreements on reviving inter-Korean economic cooperation included in the Pyongyang Declaration – very problematic considering the tough American sanctions, including secondary sanctions –they singled out the following:

In spite of a pushback from the American side which made much of the sanctions theme, Seoul did open a liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex closed by the previous government, providing it with everything necessary for normal work, including electricity and water from the South Korean side. The opening of this office is extremely important for the launching and the implementation of other inter-Korean cooperation as well as interaction projects written into the Pyongyang document.

The following comments were made on the ambitious programs sealed in the Declaration:

  • As part of the ceremony of restoring the rail link between the two Koreas before the year is out, work will first be started on the “Western” route along the coast of the Yellow Sea leading to China. North Korean experts believe that two years of joint efforts would establish regular traffic on this line. Next comes the start of the job of developing the “Eastern route” leading to Russia.

  • Priority will be given to resuming “tourism in the Kumgansan mountains” and the operations of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex.

  • Mutual understanding has been reached and working consultations have started on the plans to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) along the western coast; regarding the tourist SEZ on the eastern coast so far only an agreement in principle has been reached. Confidence was expressed that for the first time ever a joint  celebration of the 11th anniversary of the October 4 Declaration (“the second inter-Korean summit’) an idea constantly supported by Pyongyang, but not welcomed by Seoul) and the Centenary of the 1919 First of May uprising (an event traditionally widely celebrated in the Republic of Korea but up until now ignored by the DPRK) will be properly observed.

Serious hope has been expressed that during his presidency Moon Jae-in would be able to contain the right-wing opposition in the RK and modernize US-South Korean relations to allow greater independence to the Republic of Korea.

We have no doubt that the spectacular results of the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang probably surpassed the expectations of many politicians throughout the world. At the same time there is a sense of perhaps somewhat inflated expectations as well as overly optimistic assessments made by our interlocutors. 

Donald Trump’s reaction

The results of the Pyongyang summit could not but worry Washington. It brought home forcibly to the White House that it is being sidelined in the increasingly turbulent and dynamic process of inter-Korean reconciliation and the settlement of the Korean problem.

The reasons are obvious. After the successful US-DPRK summit in Singapore on July 12, 2018 US policy has been traveling increasingly more along a rather bumpy road.

The positive noises and rhetoric coming out of the US President who continued to woo Kim Jon-un calling him “a great man and leader of his country” was at odds with US actions which followed the program of hardline conservatives. They did not budge in insisting that the US sanctions and maximum pressure against North Korea should remain in place until Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) in spite of any of the phased arms reductions made by the North.

However, Pyongyang made it quite clear that it would denuclearize, to quote the DPRK ambassador to Moscow, “only step by step and simultaneously with reciprocal actions on the part of Washington, building up mutual trust.” Most recently this approach was backed by Seoul and not only by Seoul.

The recent months and weeks have increasingly revealed the strategic loneliness verging on isolation of the US on the subject of continued maximum pressure on the DPRK. Not only Russia and China and now the Republic of Korea and some European and other countries have been noting the contradiction between the continuing course for strangling sanctions against North Korea imposed during continuous provocations on its part and the current realities when Pyongyang’s behavior and the military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula changed dramatically for the better. This phenomenon was noted by many delegations during the 73d UN General Assembly Session in September. One important practical result of such sentiments was the holding in Moscow on October 9 of the first-ever tripartite consultations of the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, China and the DPRK. The joint communique on its results stressed among other things, that “"Taking into account the important steps towards denuclearization made by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the sides believe that the UN Security Council should start in due course to revise the sanctions against the DPRK.” They reaffirmed their common position against unilateral sanctions.

The recent months and weeks have increasingly revealed the strategic loneliness verging on isolation of the US on the subject of continued maximum pressure on the DPRK

This was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Donald Trump who stopped the fourth visit by the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Pyongyang two or three weeks ago, sent him there hot on the heels of the meeting between South and North Korean leaders where he held very successful talks on September 7, had a long conversation with Kim Jong-un (during his previous visit in July this year the Secretary of State was not received by the DPRK leader). Information on the outcome of the talks is scarce. However, the two sides agreed to set up expert working groups to start practical actions toward denuclearization: agree the list of nuclear missile sites of the DPRK, etc.

Perhaps Donald Trump drew some conclusions, “forced himself’ to listen to Pyongyang’s demand for reciprocal moves and to make some changes to his previously intransigent position, including on the matter of phasing out the sanctions.

If these guesses turn out to be right a new type of inter-Korean ties may start to be formed and American-North Korean and American-South Korean relations may start being modernized in a substantial way. This may provide the basis for a renewed structure of international relations on the Korean Peninsula and around it, a structure in which the intra-Korean factor would play a much more independent role.   

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