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Kim Jong-un will play the starring role in a self-orchestrated diplomatic drama when, on April 27, he becomes the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korean territory. The decision to go south, a bid to ease inter-Korean friction, followed the near total absence of North Korean outreach for more than seven years.
Kim’s opening act came in the form of a 2018 New Year’s speech in which he proposed working with South Korean authorities to reduce peninsular tensions for the sake of a successful Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. The opening of inter-Korean dialogue was accompanied by Kim’s pledge to abstain from further nuclear and missile testing during negotiations. This shift from provocation to dialogue has been a hallmark of North Korean diplomacy, but so too will be a pivot back to provocation, if the North Korean leader decides to do so.
Still, on the sidelines of the Olympics and in the weeks that followed, a flurry of informal talks between North and South Korean delegations allowed the countries to translate goodwill into diplomacy that moved faster than many anticipated. Kim Yo-jong hand delivered a personal invitation from her brother, Kim Jong-un, for a summit to South Korean President Moon Jae-in while attending the Olympics opening ceremony. Two South Korean special envoys, National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon and National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, then visited Kim on March 5–6 in Pyongyang, where Kim pledged his willingness to pursue denuclearization and conveyed an invitation for a summit with U.S. President Donald J. Trump. On March 8, Suh and Chung announced in front of the White House that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet.
The Third Inter-Korean Summit: Goals and Prospects
Kim’s second act will be the upcoming inter-Korean summit, which will be the third: his father met in Pyongyang with South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. This summit will set up the highly anticipated third act, a summit between Kim and Trump, now slated for June. In the meantime, Moon administration officials have been hard at work prepping for the Panmunjom meeting, including setting the conditions for a Trump-Kim meeting. The stakes are huge: failure could mean the return to a trajectory leading toward military conflict between the United States and North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).
The Moon administration hopes that Kim’s first visit to southern territory, even if only a day trip and a few dozen feet across the demilitarized zone, will generate South Korean public support for a warmer relationship with the North. Seoul will claim that this moment represents a rare, if limited, step toward reciprocity in inter-Korean relations. This is notable because inter-Korean relations under other liberal South Korean governments have been criticized as one-sided, occurring exclusively on North Korean terms and turf, and involving substantial economic subsidies just to secure North Korea’s participation. But with strict UN sanctions in place, Kim can expect no immediate economic reward for his presence at Panmunjom.
A second objective of the Moon administration is to regularize inter-Korean summits and normalize peninsular dialogue. Establishing the first hotline for Korean leaders, which presumably will enable direct communication between Kim and Moon, was a symbolic move and could be particularly valuable to defuse crises.
Third, Seoul is coordinating closely with Washington because it recognizes that improvements in inter-Korean relations are ultimately tied to progress in the U.S.-DPRK relationship. Moreover, North Korea has traditionally reserved denuclearization as an issue to be exclusively broached with the United States. This means that South Korea can support dialogue on denuclearization with North Korea but can never lead such a dialogue. It also means that if Moon achieves an inter-Korean summit but is unable to set the stage for a Trump-Kim summit, his efforts to reach out to North Korea will have been foiled.
To achieve peaceful denuclearization, Moon needs Kim to accept a path in which the North will dismantle its nuclear program and hand over its nuclear weapons, and he needs Trump to pursue direct dialogue with Kim. A U.S.-DPRK summit will be high-risk, high-reward for both Kim and Trump, because failure could entrench their opposing stances on the nuclear issue and lead to confrontation, with no alternative pathways that could defuse it. The risk of confrontation is also the motivation for Moon’s exertions to bring Kim and Trump together, but in betting on such a summit, Moon proven to be the biggest gambler of all.
The Panmunjom Agenda
The agenda for the inter-Korean summit has been organized into three main areas: inter-Korean relations, denuclearization, and the establishment of a permanent peace between the two Koreas.
The go-to areas for cooperation between North and South Korea involve family reunions, humanitarian work on communicable diseases, and the expansion of inter-Korean cultural and sporting exchanges, based on the model of recent inter-Korean pop concerts and sports exhibitions. However, the revival of past inter-Korean economic cooperation, including large-scale projects, such as the Kaesong Industrial Zone and the Mount Kumgang tourism project, has been blocked by UN Security Council resolutions and will remain off limits until there is tangible evidence of North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization.
The Moon administration has sought to link denuclearization to the establishment of a permanent peace regime to replace the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended hostilities on the peninsula without ending the Korean War. More importantly, the Moon administration appears to have secured buy in from Trump, as demonstrated by recent statements by the president that the exploration of permanent peace arrangements has his blessing and that he intends to do something very big to solve the North Korea problem.
At the same time, Seoul has been coaxing Kim toward denuclearization by insisting that a “step-by-step and comprehensive solution is required.” Moon’s goal will be to tee up a convergence of interests and a successful meeting between Kim and Trump.
To achieve progress, Moon desires to institutionalize a process that reopens the pathway toward peaceful denuclearization that had been closed by escalatory rhetoric, military posturing, and rising risk of conflict in the waning months of 2017. More specifically, the Moon administration seeks to be the axle that keeps the wheels of inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK relations moving forward, quickly and in concert, toward a comprehensive settlement of peace and denuclearization. Or the wheels could hit a pothole or boulder and suffer a breakdown.
How Historic Will the Summit Be?
South Korean officials have played the roles of intermediary and supporting actor behind two larger-than-life personalities, one of whom is starring in his coming-out story as a nuclear-armed power, while the other wants to show his deal-making acumen by doing what no other U.S. president has done.
Kim has used nuclear and missile development to expand his impoverished and isolated country’s strategic weight and meet his country’s long-standing adversary on equal footing. Trump has embraced Kim’s top-down approach by drawing him out and agreeing to meet with North Korea’s only consequential decision-maker, a first. Yet even if a huge deal, involving the resumption of steps toward denuclearization in exchange for moves toward a more normal U.S.-DPRK diplomatic relationship, is struck, there will remain many unanswered questions about how it will be implemented and how long it will take to do so. In addition, as recent U.S.-China and U.S.-Japan summits have shown, other actors and interests could either upend or abet Kim’s story line.
A U.S.-DPRK deal of the sort that Trump and Moon have in mind would de-escalate future crises and avert a trajectory that leads toward military confrontation. With continued economic pressure and sustained diplomatic resolve, such a process could eventually bind Kim to a different formula for preserving security, replacing nuclear weapons with diplomatic assurances as the basis for the regime’s survival, though this would come at a high cost if it also sacrifices opportunities for North Korea’s citizens, who would remain hostages to Kim’s rule.
There is also the possibility, however, that Kim will merely use this diplomatic initiative to buy time, outlast his democratic counterparts in the South, and wriggle his regime off the denuclearization hook once again, only to return in an even more costly and destabilizing form down the road. Since Kim has staged his turn toward diplomacy, this could be the ending he has in mind, but both Moon and Trump have an ending in mind in which North Korea’s nuclear threat is ultimately defanged. The outcome will depend not only on how the well the game is played, but more importantly, on who is writing the script.