from Asia Unbound

Prospects for an Inter-Korea Summit in the Post-Cheonan Era

July 01, 2010

Blog Post

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North Korea

South Korea

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Kim Sung-bae is Research Fellow of the Institute for National Security Strategy.

After the sinking of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan on March 26, 2010, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has rapidly deteriorated, worsening already high tensions and heightening the prospect for accidental military clashes. Prospects for the Six Party Talks are also very negative, as new moves to initiate additional sanctions against North Korea have replaced diplomatic efforts for the resumption of talks. Given the current situation, is there any possibility for an inter-Korean summit? A summit, paradoxically, might be the only means of exit from the crisis. Interestingly, in 1993, during heightened military tensions stemming from the first North Korean nuclear crisis, a proposal for an inter-Korean summit was accepted. The meeting was only canceled because of Kim Il-sung’s sudden death on July 8, 1994.

Today, for inter-Korean relations to resume, a whole new framework is needed given the nullification of all existing North-South agreements. Such a renewed relationship can only be achieved through a third inter-Korean summit. Moreover, progress on the North Korean nuclear issue is impossible until the current state of North-South relations is improved. In the end, the only solution is an inter-Korean summit, which could bring a breakthrough in both North-South relations and the nuclear issue at the same time.

The main challenge for holding a summit at present is the need for some kind of preconditions and an agreement to ensure that meaningful achievements are possible. The Lee Myung-bak administration had a firm position on North Korea even before the sinking of the Cheonan. Now, following the Cheonan incident, Lee and his advisers will be forced to take a much stronger position.

First, preconditions are essential for any inter-Korean summit to take place. North Korea should apologize and punish those responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan in some way or another, as President Lee has demanded. It would be difficult for North Korea, as a propaganda-based state, to make a public apology, especially considering that it has already publicly denied its involvement. Nevertheless, it would not be impossible for North Korea to send a special envoy and deliver a message of regret to President Lee, and to inform Seoul of related measures taken to prevent further incidents.

Second, North Korea should guarantee that progress will be made in any inter-Korean summit on critical disagreements such as the nuclear crisis and abduction issues. The need for such progress is even more profound when taking account of the post-Cheonan political situation.

How can an inter-Korean summit, if it were to occur in the near future, substantially contribute to the North Korean nuclear issue? An agreement to resume Six Party Talks would be the minimum contribution of any inter-Korean summit. North Korea currently refuses to return to the talks, insisting on the lifting of sanctions and initiation of peace talks with Washington as preconditions. If North Korea were to declare, during a summit with the South, its willingness to unconditionally return to Six Party Talks, it would substantially facilitate the easing of the nuclear crisis.

If North Korea were to declare a moratorium on nuclear testing as a result of an inter-Korean summit, it would also significantly contribute to DPRK denuclearization. Such actions do not have to be agreed upon within the Six Party Talks because they could be unilateral decisions made by Pyongyang. Making North Korea abandon its uranium enrichment program would be an impossible task, as that step is a very useful bargaining chip in the North’s negotiations with the United States. However, making North Korea agree to a moratorium on nuclear testing is worth the effort to hold an inter-Korean summit.

The case of Pyongyang’s moratorium on missile testing in the late 1990s is a useful example in this regard. In September 1999, the United States and North Korea agreed on a moratorium on missile testing as long as the U.S.-DPRK dialogue continued on the easing of sanctions against the North Korean regime. Pyongyang agreed to continue the moratorium on two occasions, when Japanese prime minister Koizumi visited North Korea in September 2002, and again in May 2004. Considering these cases, there is a good chance that a moratorium on nuclear testing could be agreed upon in an inter-Korean summit. In this instance, a clear statement would be much more desirable than a vague message. If the goal were to be realized, it would be one of the greatest achievements in South Korea’s diplomatic history.

Another minimum achievement would be to secure North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization in Kim Jong-il’s own words and then to insert those comments into a joint statement at the end of the summit. If North Korea were to violate the agreement, clear remarks by Kim Jong-Il would have considerable binding power, as once a political decision has been made by Kim, it becomes virtually impossible to reverse it.

Under the current serious situation on the Korean peninsula, an inter-Korean summit is possible and can contribute to North Korean denuclearization. A shopping list of potential goals for a summit that are plausible and worth trying for includes: the resumption of Six Party Talks; a moratorium on nuclear testing; and a clear commitment to denuclearization expressed in Kim Jong-Il’s own words. If one item in this list can be realized, then a third inter-Korean summit will be seen as having contributed to the denuclearization of North Korea. Under current circumstances, it does not appear that Six Party Talks will be resumed before the revival of inter-Korean relations. Therefore, the Lee administration can work on reestablishing and improving relations with Pyongyang in an effort to achieve the above three goals.

The Obama and Lee administrations should cooperate closely to achieve such objectives in an inter-Korean summit. The two administrations have already declared a common “comprehensive” approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. Feasible achievements in an inter-Korean summit can serve as elements of this “comprehensive package.” Such gains would be evaluated as a big diplomatic victory for the Lee administration and would draw a good starting line for both Six Party Talks and U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks.