By Charles Armstrong
Last Friday’s historic summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade and only the third since the nation was divided after World War II, was arguably long on symbolism and short on substance. But the symbolism was extraordinary. Kim came to the meeting across the heavily fortified boundary dividing the Korean Peninsula, the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South. He and Moon shook hands at the concrete curb that marked the boundary, and—in an apparently unscripted moment—Kim took Moon’s hand and the two stepped briefly into the North, then back again.
The two leaders’ little unification dance showed the division between two bitter foes as something arbitrary and absurd, a meaningless imaginary line easily crossed and re-crossed. The meeting in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, where peace talks have been held on and off since the Korean War raged in 1951, was the first inter-Korean summit not held in Pyongyang. It was the first summit with North Korea represented by Kim Jong Un and not his father, Kim Jong Il. Perhaps most important, it was the first inter-Korean summit in the era of a nuclear-armed North Korea and an American president willing, even eager, to talk to the North Korean leader.
As for substance, the summit produced a “Panmunjom Declaration” that was the longest and most detailed joint statement the two Koreas have issued in the decades since the first North-South Communiqué of July 4, 1972. Some of it was boilerplate: vague commitments to “a new era of peace,” ceasing “hostile acts” against each other, reducing military tension and confirming the common goal of a “nuclear free Korean Peninsula” without any specific timetable or reference to North Korea’s nuclear program.
At several points, the declaration referred to earlier agreements by which both sides agreed to abide. The agreement reached in the previous summit, in October 2007, was evoked as a basis for economic cooperation. The two sides reaffirmed the Non-Aggression Agreement of December 1991, which precludes each side using force against the other. The declaration’s commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula evoked an earlier joint declaration on denuclearization signed in January 1992.
But some elements of the Panmunjom Declaration were unprecedented and called for concrete actions to be taken within a defined time frame. Such actions included reunions of separated families by August of this year, high-level military meetings beginning in May and the establishment of liaison offices in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, home to a joint industrial complex established during a thaw in relations in 2002 and shuttered since 2016. Whether or not these specified and near-term goals are realized will be the first test of whether this declaration will have more substance and staying power than earlier ones. The Moon-Kim summit now sets the stage for Kim’s landmark meeting with President Donald Trump, which will presumably take place sometime later this spring.
But the inter-Korean conversation and resulting declaration show that the Korean problem goes much deeper than North Korea’s nuclear program, which has been the focus of much of the world’s attention. North Korea’s rapid advances in nuclear and missile technology, especially since Kim Jong Un came to power at the end of 2011, have been recognized as dangerous and destabilizing even by China, North Korea’s sole ally. Pyongyang’s military ambitions have evoked stringent international sanctions and seemed to be leading the United States and North Korea to the brink of war just a few months ago.
Current tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula have many proximate causes, but ultimately arise out of the division of Korea by the U.S. and the Soviet Union after World War II, and the war that erupted between the two Koreas five years later. The failure of the 1953 armistice to overcome the division of Korea and establish a permanent peace did not just lead to geopolitical stalemate, with a divided peninsula throughout the Cold War and beyond. It also preserved a confrontation between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the U.S. that, as evidenced in late 2017, threatens at any time to break out into catastrophic conflict.
The unfinished war on the Korean Peninsula is indeed a “Cold War relic,” as the Panmunjom Declaration states. So perhaps its most important part was the two Koreas’ agreement to “actively pursue” meetings with the U.S., and possibly China as well, in order to end the Korean War and replace the armistice with a peace treaty that would establish “a permanent and solid peace regime.”
Needless to say, achieving this goal will be complex and difficult, and the three or four parties to any new Korean peace agreement come with diverging interests and aims. But Pyongyang has made it clear that it will not unilaterally disarm as long as it faces the “hostile policy” of the United States. Therefore, North Korean denuclearization is only likely to happen within the context of a broader arrangement that offers North Korea security guarantees it has long demanded. Even if the parties involved agree to such a peace agreement in principle, the details of a deal and the sequence of steps toward reaching it will require a high degree of diplomatic skill and patience.
Critics of the proposed Trump-Kim summit have rightly pointed out that near-term North Korean denuclearization is not in the cards. North Korea under Kim Jong Un has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are essential to the defense of the state, and that denuclearization cannot come about until after the US has dropped its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. Depending on how one defines “hostile policy,” which may include US troops stationed in South Korea and US nuclear weapons aimed at the North, it would take considerable time and political will for the US to satisfy North Korea’s demand. It is not entirely clear how the US defines North Korean denuclearization and what it is willing to offer Pyongyang in exchange. It seems that Trump agreed to the meeting without much foresight or planning, unless then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recently disclosed secret visit to Pyongyang worked out more details than previously known. If Trump expects Kim to immediately offer to give up his nuclear arsenal when they meet, he will be sorely disappointed, and the talks will fail. But if the U.S. approaches denuclearization as the two Koreas have done, as part of a larger and long-term process of peace-building in Northeast Asia, there is a chance that U.S.-North Korea talks will be the start of a long, belated process of unwinding the Korean War.
It took 70 years of confrontation, war and near-war to get to the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough today, and dismantling these structures of conflict will take time. The delicate dance toward peace may have just begun.
Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. He is the former director of Columbia’s Center for Korean Research and former Acting Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He is the author, editor or co-editor of five books, including most recently “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992” and “The Koreas.”