In a widely circulated image from the recent summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, the two men, with their backs to the camera, are seen holding hands. As they briefly stepped together into North Korea, across the infamous Demilitarized Zone, they seemed the antithesis of one of the planet’s most dangerous rivalries.
And so the waves of enthusiasm with which the encounter on April 27 has been met are hardly unexpected. The change in tone and rhetoric is palpable, especially from Kim. Perhaps not surprisingly, the general feeling seems to be at least cautiously optimistic.
But there are many thorns on the road yet untraveled — and no certainty that a roadmap even exists. Where exactly are the parties trying to go and what do they need to do to get there? The ultimate endgame seems to be a denuclearized Korean peninsula in the framework of a peace agreement between North and South. However, overlapping, multifaceted political and security interests could derail this ambitious enterprise. Optimism alone won’t overcome them.
The situation is evolving rapidly before an attentive global audience. And no one — in or out of any government — can claim to know at this point where this newfound momentum will take the peninsula or the world.
More good intentions, or something new?
The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is possible. But it requires compromise. Real, tangible, demonstrable compromise — from all parties. There will be no unilateral concessions.
At least in theory, this historic summit could set in motion a series of measures to resolve the longstanding Korean conflict and at least diminish broader international tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program. Both key elements are set out in the carefully drafted Panmunjom Declaration, which contains few specifics but lots of welcome aspirations.
The commitment to denuclearization is important in its own right, but also because it is tied to the alleviation of tensions between the Koreas. Some of the objectives stated in the declaration (e.g., family reunification; improved common infrastructure; the establishment of reliable channels of communication; increased governmental, cultural and athletic cooperation and exchanges and, critically, steps toward denuclearization) constitute highly positive confidence-building measures that are entirely consistent with the ultimate goal of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
But good intentions do not always amount to success. Previous summits between the predecessors of Kim and Moon — such as the 2000 meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — were also met with optimism. Kim Dae-jung’s policy of constructive engagement with North Korea (the Sunshine Policy) even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the enthusiasm around the leaders’ summit in 2000, however, there is little to show for those efforts now, especially in the realm of denuclearization. So how and why might the outcome be different — and better — this time around?
Perhaps most importantly: what has North Korea actually committed to do to dismantle its nuclear weapons program? In reality, nothing much.
According to the joint declaration, “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” But the pursuit of this goal could mean different things to different actors, as is already evident in the wide-ranging views from pundits and analysts.
It’s all about the security assurances
Conventional wisdom has long held that North Korea would not abandon its nuclear weapons program without getting concrete and substantial security assurances in return — exactly the sort of tradeoffs the United States has long ruled out.
When North Korea speaks of security assurances, it is not referring to the lifting of sanctions, although this would certainly be a part of any grand bargain. While Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal as its prime bargaining chip, useful only once, sanctions can be easily reinstated.
Instead, it has traditionally been understood that security assurances to Pyongyang must be based on a fundamental change in US military doctrine and preparedness in the peninsula. This would involve the debate around the continued presence of approximately 28,000 US troops in South Korea.
According to Moon, however, the North Korean regime would now be willing to drop its longstanding demand of US troop withdrawal from South Korea as a prerequisite for denuclearization. If true, this position could, in principle, facilitate progress. But it is hard to see what security assurances to North Korea would then be so credible and robust that Kim would be willing to give up the crown jewels of his security apparatus.
There are other problems in normalizing relations between North and South Korea, such as North Korea’s notoriously poor human rights record— exactly the type of record that has been used as a pretext to call for regime change in other cases. Would the United States and the rest of the international community be willing to acknowledge and support a North Korea that abused its own citizens, as long as nuclear weapons were out of the equation?
In the context of renewed prospects for dialogue with North Korea, the United States would do well to clarify its focus and expectations regarding what exactly is on the table — including, but not limited to, the denuclearization question.
President Trump: Help or hindrance?
Kim and Moon may have been the protagonists at Panmunjom, but the pursuit of peace and denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula is most definitely not a bilateral enterprise.
Unless the plan is derailed — and it well could be — another historic meeting will take place by the end of June, this one between Kim and US President Donald Trump. Details are scarce, but the central topic to be addressed is known to be North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The role of the United States is key, but it is not at all clear how Trump will play his hand.
In addition to the United States, the involvement of near-neighbours (and nuclear-armed) Russia and China is also unavoidable. But whatever the regional security dynamics, Trump will be pressed to secure a tangible victory to rally his base at home and to meet heightened international expectations.
Recent statements from the White House indicate that nothing less than complete denuclearization will do for Trump. But, again, how and at what cost?
In the latest White House personnel shuffle, Trump has added several hawks to key positions that will be directly involved in the planning of the meeting.
Rex Tillerson, who advocated a diplomatic approach to the crisis with North Korea, has been replaced as secretary of state by Mike Pompeo, whose political support is found in the right-wing, reactionary Tea Party.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, considered to have been a moderate voice in Trump’s inner circle, also recently left the White House, succeeded by John Bolton, a controversial former US ambassador to the United Nations who has publicly advocated for military intervention in North Korea.
Do these people want to do the hard work of diplomacy to achieve a peaceful resolution to the high-stakes stalemate? Is it fully clear to them that unilateral concessions from North Korea have never been an option? Or do they consider the meeting a perfect opportunity to silence those who accuse them of not giving diplomacy a chance?
The meeting could well be seen as a way to discredit any effort to solve the crisis in a peaceful manner. Once diplomacy is ruled out, the hawks could seize on the alternative.
A catalyst for disarmament beyond North Korea
North Korea's increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons program creates legitimate international security concerns. But too often policymakers overlook the simple fact that the current standoff is in part a result of an unsustainable nuclear weapons architecture that perpetuates a double standard between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not. The nuclear disarmament status quo constitutes a case study in inequitable, discriminatory global governance.
To be sure, the fundamental rationale for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is essentially the one used by every other nuclear-armed state: a stubborn belief that nuclear deterrence will protect vital national security interests.
Last year the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime was changed with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. From this perspective, the possession of nuclear weapons by the United States (or any other nuclear-armed state) and by North Korea is equally unacceptable.
At the end of the day, a blatant disregard for a decades-old commitment to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has created strong proliferation pressures. The international community would do well to recognize that such pressures will never be fully allayed as long as a cliquish few insist on being at the same time arbiters and direct beneficiaries of global norms around the acceptability of nuclear weapons possession.
The ultimate root of nuclear insecurity is still in the continued possession of nuclear arsenals by a few states and the continued resistance of those states to disarm. And if the present effort were to succeed in achieving peace and stability in a denuclearized Korean peninsula, it will be a necessary but insufficient contribution to the pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free world.