April 28, 2018. For the first time since the Korean War, a North Korean leader crossed the Korean DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] to visit the “South”. It wasn’t the first Inter-Korean summit however. In 2000, Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the Nobel Prize of Peace for his role in the first summit of this kind, organized with the back then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. If this first such summit could not solve the Korean crisis, what can we expect from this recent one?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to look briefly at what brought the summit. Since 1950, the two Koreas have officially been at war, although effective hostilities ceased in 1953. The “North” carried out 6 nuclear test, which one was once considered to be a test on a hydrogen bomb. In 2013, the nuclear voltage reaches its climax between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the United States. This tension was mainly caused by putting Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 into orbit, which was the first satellite successfully launched by North Korea, and by the nuclear test of February 12, 2013, which was followed by two UN resolutions [2087 and 2094] accentuating the sanctions against the Kim regime. The threat of an imminent war against the United States seized North Korean official rhetoric; Kim’s regime, through his bellicose speeches, propelled a new arms race in Asia. Then, the election of Donald Trump first revived major tensions between the Kim administration and the US government. Following the April 3, 2017 U.S. missile strikes in Shayrat, Syria, pressure was felt on the north side of the peninsula. Without reviewing all the tweets and all the venomous statements between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, like the episode on “Little Rocket Man” or the one about “fire and fury like the world has never seen“, it is imperative to raise the fact that the exchange seemed at the time blocked for the duration of the presidential term of Trump.
What brought the Koreas to meet at the recent inter-Korean summit of 2018 remains unclear. For many experts, Kim Jong Un is currently taking control of the nuclear conflict in this way, just as he gained sympathetic capital during the recent Olympic Games. For several authors, talks between the two Koreas were brought back by Donald Trump’s economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Finally, it is worth recalling the importance of the study of Chinese seismologists, which raised the fact that the North Korean nuclear test site may have become unusable due to a partial collapse of the mountain where it is located. It did not take much time [after that] for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to announce a moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental missile fire, as well as the closure of the Punggye-ri site. The destruction of the site will occur between May 23 and May 25, depending on the meteorological conditions [several South Korean journalists were invited, but the journalists were not, which caused some tensions]. This directly leads to the summit.
From this summit, we can draw several conclusions. The first imperative question concerns the nuclear aspect. Is this a denuclearization agreement? Absolutely not. The US government is wrong if it believes that the Panmunjom Declaration, the central document produced by the summit, is an agreement of this kind. Only 1 of the 13 item actions are addressed to the nuclear weapons of the North, and this, in very vague words. The point lies in the difference of speech. Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, says he wants a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula“. It’s clear, precise, direct. But what Kim lets appear is not at all. He mainly discusses about the “building of the world free from nuclear weapons“. Therefore, the nuance is important. The North Korean president has the idea that he is abandoning his nuclear weapons in a global denuclearization, which is not considered by the other military powers involved, for them or for their allies. The difference between Kim’s internal and external discourses is also crucial. Kim spoke again recently (April 2018) about the success of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets, and he recently approached the Workers’ Party of Korea that North Korea had reached the historical stage of nuclear power. Based on an analysis of the subsequent declarations and statements in the recent statement, it should be mentioned that the recent inter-Korean summit does not constitute a denuclearization agreement. However, efforts to achieve the summit were incredibly useful for opening a lasting peace dialogue. If the acceptance that Korean denuclearization is not imminent is achieved, a peace agreement may be possible. The United States will have to make a foreign policy change to North Koreans, which could be possible at a possible Kim-Trump summit. But as Trump has canceled the meeting with Kim scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, this possibility seems to be discarded for the moment. However, in his letter announcing his refusal to attend the June 12 summit, Trump said he would still be interested in meeting him in a climate where the aggressive rhetoric of the North Korean leader will be dropped.
Given this imperative need, the summit leaves two possible scenarios. The first scenario is that the Trump administration will freeze its promise to completely disarm North Korea, unlike the three administrations that preceded it. Faced with the evidence of North Korea’s external rhetoric, showing a demand for global denuclearization, and Kim’s domestic policy, it is clear that the North Korean government will not abide in this direction. Washington will then step up pressure on Seoul to make such demands as part of a peace deal. With the fact that the Americans provide South Korean security, the choice seems obvious and the return to the starting point will be pronounced in such a scenario. An ultimatum or a withdrawal of the talks will mean an end to the peace efforts engendered by this third inter-Korean summit, the first in more than eleven years.
The second scenario sees an openness of the US and South Korean administrations towards a progressive disarmament of North Korea, and this, concerning only nuclear missiles of international scope. Hypothetically, Trump will accept Kim’s invitation to show moderate motives, which will propel the end of North Korean bellicose rhetoric. The US president had already announced that he accepted the invitation of the Supreme Leader and he ordered the end of nuclear tests and a halt to the production of missiles. If he knows how to stick to a moderate speech, Trump may well get what many critics deny: the award of the Nobel Prize of Peace. On the other hand, as it was recalled above, Trump canceled on May 24 the next summit scheduled for June 12, leaving the door open for a summit later.
In the immediate future, the possible outcome of the recent summit lies in the abandonment of threats of imminent war. This is a change of tone of conversation between actors related to the conflict. This can be explained by Kim’s recent visits to China and the inclusion of South Korean aid policies in the construction of railways and roads in the north of the peninsula [in the Panmunjom Declaration]. Furthermore, the polemists mentioning that the summit is a first step towards the reunification of Korea are wrong. They totally forget in such a reading the Chinese power not wanting a unified Korea, bringing American troops directly to the outskirts of China. In the long run, in the case of abandoning martial speeches from all sides, a lasting peace seems to be a much more effective goal. A de jure end to war is possible, not only de facto. The actions of the Trump administration should be monitored in a possible summit with Kim Jong Un, especially as the Supreme Leader wishes to obtain peace without addressing the cases of internment of Americans in his territory. Even if Trump hinted at his withdrawal on May 24th, it may well be that it’s just a master shot at poker. He probably wants Kim to give up once and for all the bellicose remarks addressed to the USA. The next few days will be decisive.