September inter-Korean Summit: A quick recap

Moon Jae In, Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Suk, and Ri Sol Ju on Mount Paektu on September 20. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Although the third inter-Korean summit of 2018 lasted for three days, observers began evaluating the event in earnest by day two, when the two sides released the Pyongyang Declaration. Some analysts counted the summit as yet another brick in the house of failure in getting North Korea to commit unequivocally to denuclearization. Others hailed it as an important step in the long road to building peaceful relations. As is often the case, the real outcome is much more gray than black or white.

Disconnect between expectations and achievements

Those disappointed by the lack of progress on concrete denuclearization steps are overlooking the fact that by the forces of geopolitics, President Moon is ultimately a mediator between the United States and North Korea. This means he is not optimally positioned to extract groundbreaking promises from Pyongyang. Before the trip, the Blue House stated that there would likely be no “major progress” on denuclearization at the inter-Korean summit. Instead, President Moon’s goals were progress toward creating peace on the Korean Peninsula, economic cooperation, and having a “heart to heart” dialogue with Kim Jong Un, setting the stage for future meetings with the United States. By those measures, the South Korean leader was successful.

As for fostering peace, the two sides signed a defense agreement that included buffer zones in the air and sea on the border, and North Korea agreed to shutter guard posts along the DMZ, as the South has already done. While not headline-grabbing in the United States, addressing North Korea’s substantial conventional weaponry arsenal is significant for the country that actually shares its border with the North. These measures help prevent potential conflict-escalating scenarios.

And although not the lone catalyst for reviving dormant talks between the US and North Korea, President Moon’s visit served as a vehicle in which both Trump and Kim can seem reconciliatory without giving the appearance of backing down. This is significant in the symbolism-heavy dynamics of international power politics.

Overall, President Moon stayed within the boundaries of his abilities and accomplished his short-term goals. His critics in the foreign policy world must be careful not to create unattainable standards, thereby setting him up inevitable failure when he cannot reach them.

Not a clear victory either

With that said, optimists should hold off their victory lap for the time being. On the nuclear issue, South Korean officials made two important announcements. North Korea is willing to invite experts to witness the dismantling of the engine site at Tongchang-ri (also known as Sohae), and plan to decommission the nuclear reactors at Yongbyon on the condition of “reciprocal measures (상응조치)” from the United States.

These are both vague actions. Not included in the statement is who the nuclear experts are or the extent of access they will be granted. Additionally, North Korea did not specify the “reciprocal measures” in exchange for shuttering Yongbyon. Is it a formal declaration to end the war? Will the United States see dismantling Tongchang-ri as a concrete step towards denuclearization? Which action should come first?

Additionally, these measures are technically progress for the 2018 round of diplomacy, but they are certainly not in the history of nuclear negotiations with North Korea. The very first article of the joint statement signed by the Six-Party members in 2005 states, “The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”

This reflects just how much the nuclear issue has regressed and how much ground is left to make up.

Meet in New York

As has been standard in recent negotiations with North Korea, the concrete details of the summit will likely come out over the next few weeks via announcements by South Korean officials. President Moon met with President Trump in New York, and there is now the possibility of a second North Korea/U.S. meeting. It is only then that the international community can gain a clearer idea of the effectiveness of the recent inter-Korean summit. In the meantime, optimists must be persistent in demanding progress, and critics must adjust their expectations to the reality of what the South Korean president can actually achieve.

A good metaphor to summarize the ambiguity surrounding the evaluation of the summit is the gift Pyongyang gave to the South Korea delegation, two tons of pine mushrooms valued at over $1 million. For Seoul, receiving food from a country the UN designated as a “food deficient” country is not great optics. On his return trip, however, President Moon announced he would donate the mushrooms to families separated by the Korean War. Even in gifts, President Moon was careful to stay in the gray area.

*Nate Kerkhoff is a Master’s candidate at Yonsei Graduate School for International Studies and Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum