Koreas summit: Will historic talks lead to lasting peace?

Friday’s dramatic meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Chairman Kim Jong-un, represents an unambiguous historic breakthrough at least in terms of the image of bilateral reconciliation and the emotional uplift it has given to South Korea public opinion.

Whether the agreement announced at the meeting – the new Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula – offers, in substance, the right mix of concrete measures to propel the two Koreas and the wider international community towards a lasting peace remains an open question.

The symbolic impact of a North Korean leader setting foot for the first time on South Korean soil cannot be underestimated.

Mr Kim’s bold decision to stride confidently into nominally hostile territory reflects the young dictator’s confidence and acute sense of political theatre and expertly executed timing.

His clever, seemingly spontaneous gesture to President Moon to reciprocate his step into the South by having him join him for an instance in stepping back into the North was an inspired way of asserting the equality of the two countries and their leaders.

It also, by blurring the boundary between the two countries, hinted at the goal of unification that both Seoul and Pyongyang have long sought to realise.

The rest of the day was full of visual firsts and a set of cleverly choreographed images of the two leaders chatting informally and intimately in the open air – deliberately advancing a powerful new narrative of the two Koreas as agents of their own destiny.

Handshakes, broad smiles and bear hugs have amplified this message of Koreans determining their own future, in the process offsetting past memories of a peninsula all too often dominated by the self-interest of external great powers, whether China, Japan, or more recently, during the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union.

  • Historic summit as it happened
  • Key moments from the meeting
  • Read the Korean declaration in full
  • Five conflicts that continued after they ended

    The two leaders’ joint statements before the international media were another pitch perfect moment for Mr Kim to challenge the world’s preconceptions.

    In an instance, Mr Kim’s confident and relaxed announcement to the press dispelled the picture of a remote, rigid, autocratic leader in favour of a normal, humanised statesman, intent on working to advance the cause of peace and national reconciliation.

    A cynic might see this as both a simple propaganda victory for Mr Kim, and also his attempt to lock in place the nuclear and missile advances the North has already achieved by calling for “phased…disarmament” – by intentionally downplaying the expectation of immediate progress while emphasising the need for step-by-step negotiations.

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    • Profile: Kim Jong-un
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      The joint declaration echoes the themes of past accords, including the previous Korean leaders summits of 2000 and 2007, and an earlier 1991 bilateral Reconciliation and Non-Aggression agreement.

      Plans to establish joint liaison missions, military dialogue and confidence building measures, economic co-operation, and the expansion of contact between the citizens of the two countries have featured in earlier agreements.

      However, Friday’s declaration is more specific in its proposals, with the two countries pledging, for example, “to cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, sea and air…” and providing a series of key dates for the early implementation by both sides of a raft of new confidence building measures.

      These include the cessation of “all hostile acts” near the demilitarised zone by 1 May, the start of bilateral military talks in May, joint participation by the two Koreas in the 2018 Asian Games, the re-establishment of family reunions by 15 August, and, perhaps most importantly of all, a return visit to the North by President Moon’s by as soon as the autumn of this year.

      Committing to early, albeit incremental, steps in the direction of peace, appears to be motivated by the Korean leaders’ wish to foster an irresistible sense of momentum and urgency.

      The declaration also calls for future peace treaty talks involving the two Koreas, together with one or both of China and the US.

      The logic of binding external actors into a definite – but evolving – timetable for progress on key issues is that it lowers the risk of conflict on the peninsula – something both Koreas are keen to avoid and which they have long had reason to fear given the past bellicose language of a “fire and fury” Donald Trump.

      Playing for time is a viable option, given that President Moon is at the start of his five-year presidency – a marked contrast to the summits of 2000 and 2007, when the respective leaders of the South, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, were already well into their presidential terms.

      Mr Moon can count, therefore, on repeat meetings with Mr Kim, and the two men appear genuinely interested in sustaining their dialogue and making progress on the wide-ranging set of initiatives included in the declaration.

      Mr Kim’s own statements at the summit have also been a vocal argument in favour of identity politics, given his stress on “one nation, one language, one blood”, and his repeated rejection of any future conflict between the Koreas – two themes that will have played well with a South Korean public that traditionally is sympathetic to a narrative of self-confident, although not necessarily strident, nationalism.

      For all of the stress on Koreans determining their common future, there is no escaping the decisive importance of the US.

      The much anticipated Trump-Kim summit in May or early June will be critical in testing the sincerity of the North’s commitment to a peaceful settlement.

      Pyongyang’s professed commitment to “denuclearisation” is likely to be very different from Washington’s demand for “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible” nuclear disarmament.

      Not only will the Trump-Kim summit be a way of measuring the gap between the US and North Korea on this issue; it will also be an important opportunity to gauge how far the US has developed its own strategy for narrowing the differences with the North.

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        President Moon has cleverly and repeatedly allowed Mr Trump to assume credit for the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, recognising perhaps that boosting the US president’s ego is the best way of minimising the risk of war and keeping Mr Trump engaged in dialogue with the North.

        Whatever the long-term, substantive outcome from the Panmunjeom summit, the event has memorably showcased the political astuteness, diplomatic agility and strategic vision of both Korean leaders.

        The dramatic events of Friday are a reminder that personality and leadership are key ingredients in effecting historical change, sometimes allowing relatively small powers to advance their interests in spite of the competing interests of larger, more influential states.

        Dr John Nilsson-Wright

        Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

        Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations, University of Cambridge

North Korea nuclear test site to close in May, South Korea says

North Korea’s nuclear test site will close in May, the South Korean president’s office has said.

A spokesman said the closure of the Punggye-ri site would be done in public and foreign experts from South Korea and the US would be invited to watch.

Scientists have said the site may have partially collapsed in September.

On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to work to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

Their summit came after months of warlike rhetoric from the North.

On Saturday, US President Donald Trump he would likely hold talks with the North Korean leadership “over the next three or four weeks” about the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

What did South Korea say?

Presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan said that Mr Kim had stated he “would carry out the closing of the nuclear test site in May”.

Mr Yoon added that the North Korean leader had also said he “would soon invite experts of South Korea and the US to disclose the process to the international community with transparency”.

  • Will Korea talks lead to lasting peace?
  • Five conflicts that continued after they ended

    The office also said North Korea would change its time zone – currently half an hour different – to match that of the South.

    North Korea has so far made no public comments on the issue.

    What is known about the test site?

    Situated in mountainous terrain in the north-east, it is thought to be the North’s main nuclear facility.

    The nuclear tests have taken place in a system of tunnels dug below Mount Mantap, near the Punggye-ri site.

    • North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site

      Six nuclear tests have been carried out there since 2006.

      After the last, in September 2017, a series of aftershocks hit the site, which seismologists believe collapsed part of the mountain’s interior.

      Mr Kim made an apparent reference to these reports, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

      “Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that they are in good condition,” the North Korean leader was quoted as saying by Mr Yoon on Sunday.

      The information about the nuclear site has been gathered mainly from satellite imagery and tracking the movement of equipment at the location.

      Building trust

      Analysis by the BBC’s Korea correspondent Laura Bicker

      This is another significant and symbolic step by Kim Jong-un.

      He had already announced he’d be closing the Punggye-ri test site, but now he has told officials in South Korea that he’s prepared to make it public and invite experts and media from Seoul and the US to inspect it.

      Mr Kim also told President Moon that he hoped trust could be built with the US and reiterated that there would be no need for him to have nuclear weapons if they formally ended the war on the Korean peninsula.

      Mr Kim said once Washington spoke to him North Korea would know he was not an aggressor.

      He added that his heart was broken when he saw the two clocks with different Korean time zones hanging on the wall of the peace house at the border between the two countries.

      He will now match the time zone in the North with that of the South.

      What was agreed at the inter-Korean summit?

      Mr Kim and Mr Moon said they would pursue talks with the US and China to formally end the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a truce, not total peace.

      The commitment to denuclearisation does not explicitly refer to North Korea halting its nuclear activities but rather to the aim of “a nuclear-free Korean peninsula”.

      Catch me up

      The statement talks about this taking place in a phased manner, but does not include further details.

      Many analysts remain sceptical about the North’s apparent enthusiasm for engagement.

      • Profile: Kim Jong-un
      • North Korea crisis in 300 words

        Previous inter-Korean agreements have been abandoned after the North resorted to nuclear and missile tests and the South elected more conservative presidents.

        Mr Kim said the two leaders had agreed to work to prevent a repeat of the region’s “unfortunate history” in which progress had “fizzled out”.

        Other points the leaders agreed on in a joint statement were:

        • An end to “hostile activities” between the two nations
        • Changing the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the country into a “peace zone” by ceasing propaganda broadcasts
        • An arms reduction in the region pending the easing of military tension
        • To push for four-way talks involving the US and China
        • Organising a reunion of families left divided by the war
        • Connecting and modernising railways and roads across the border
        • Further joint participation in sporting events, including this year’s Asian Games