North Korea ‘s leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korea’s president Moon Jai-in just concluded their historic summit. This was only the third time since the end of the Korean War that leaders of these countries officially met face to face. This highly choreographed event was full of symbolic gestures. It brought some important breakthroughs, but also offered reasons to be cautious for South Korea and the U.S.
The key breakthrough of this summit is the issuing of the Panmunjom Declaration, also called the joint statement. It calls for both countries starting talks with the U.S. and China to formally end the Korean War. For those of you who don’t know, the 1950-1953 Korean War was ended in an armistice signed on 27 July 1953, with neither side claimed a clear victory. Military leaders from China and North Korea signed the agreement on one side, and the US-led United Nations Command signed on behalf of the other side. South Korea was not a signatory. The armistice was intended to be a temporary truce measure. But no permanent peace treaty has ever been signed. Over the decades since 1953, North Korea declared multiple times not to abide by the armistice. Technically, the Korean War hasn’t officially ended in the last 65 years. Therefore, it will be a great deal to peace in the Korean Peninsula and to the rest of the world if the four parties, North and South Koreas, China and the U.S. sign a permanent peace treaty to officially end the Korean War.
The joint statement also declares that both countries agree to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air, land and sea, that are the sources of military tension and conflicts.”
Since more than 10 million Koreans have close relatives living on the other side of the border, another breakthrough means more for Korean people in the near term is that the agreement calls for restart the family reunion on August 15th.
Reasons for Caution
The joint statement lacks any specifics on the question of the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. A week ago, Kim Jong-Un announced North Korea would shut down his nuclear-testing site and suspend long range missile tests. But a freeze of a nuclear test can easily be reversed. In addition, Chinese scientists confirmed in news report this week that North Korea’s mountain nuclear test site, where the last five out of six nuclear tests were conducted, has collapsed. This is probably why Kim decided to suspend nuclear tests for the time being and use the test suspension as a bargaining chip for a near-term economic relief, which is a very shrewd move.
The joint statement issued at the summit used the vague language such as both countries agree to “realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” It will be naive to think this means North Korea will dismantle existing nuclear weapons or give up producing nuclear weapons in the future. On the contrary, it could mean a trap to pressure the U.S. to remove its military assets including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Without the U.S. military protection, South Korea will be very vulnerable for a completely military takeover by North Korea. So it’s way too early to celebrate peace in the Korean Peninsula based on this one summit. People on both sides should be reminded again and again that there is a wide gap of the meaning of “denuclearnization” for all parties involved.
Small Details Signal Trouble Ahead
Two small details of this highly choreographed event caught my attention. The first one was at the greeting. After Kim Jong-Un walked over to the concrete military demarcation line at Panmunjom that has divided the two Koreas since an armistice agreement in 1953, he took President Moon’s hand and crossed over into the northern side of the demarcation line. Moon was clearly surprised but he obliged. So the two leaders had more photo ops on the north side before walking back to the southern side of the border together. This small detail indicates that Kim is determined to show he is in charge of how an event is unfolding according to his will in front of the world media. He has no problem coercing the South into something that mainly benefits him.
Another detail was during the lunch break, Kim Jong-Un headed to lunch in a car with 12 bodyguards jogging alongside. This is a reminder that despite Kim’s charm offense, we should not forget that North Korea is a brutal totalitarian regime and Kim is a cold blooded dictator. South Korea’s economic and political systems are polar opposite of North Korea’s. The Korean people have to decide which political system they want and what kind of leader they want before they demand a reunified Korea.
Given the fact that a few months ago, we were all worried that a nuclear war would break out in the Korean Peninsula, this historic summit between North and South Korea is still a giant leap towards the right direction and it teed up nicely for the Trump/Kim summit in June. President Trump promised that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes of the past. US will not be making substantial concessions such as lifting economic sanctions until North has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs. We shall see if he can keep his promise when he meets Kim Jong-Un in person.