Anticipation is high on the Korean peninsula as leaders from North and South prepare to meet for their first inter-Korean summit since 2007. It is expected to lay the groundwork for the upcoming meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump that is likely to be held in late May or early June.
The summit is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is that the two Koreas will touch on pressing security challenges before the United States is at the negotiating table. It is also important because it comes on the heels of heightened tensions earlier this year when it appeared that the Trump administration was considering the use of military options against North Korea.
The upcoming summits have cooled tensions, albeit temporarily, as the countries prepare to negotiate. Curiosities are piqued and hopes are high that the summits might lead to a negotiated settlement, one that might finally conclude the decades-long nuclear dilemma posed by Pyongyang’s bellicosity.
Ahead of the summit, North Korea has made some lofty promises, first indicating that it might be willing to denuclearize in exchange for security guarantees from the US and the South. This, in fact, led President Trump to accept Kim Jong-un’s offer to meet. Then North Korea suggested that it would not necessarily require the removal of US troops from the Korean peninsula to denuclearize. And now, just ahead of the inter-Korean summit, North Korea said it will freeze nuclear and missile testing and shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site.
This last promise, however, is less conciliatory than it might first appear. Kim Jong-un said that he would shut down the test site because there was no need for further testing since North Korea’s nuclear program is complete. It does not automatically signal North Korea’s willingness to give up nuclear weapons.
If history is any guide, both summits will fall short of expectations. Friday’s summit will be the third inter-Korean summit hosted since the end of the Korean War. And the US has negotiated with North Korea on a handful of occasions, most notably resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six-Party Talks in the early 2000s.
In 2002, North Korea began unraveling the Agreed Framework, first by cheating on the agreement and then restarting its nuclear facilities, kicking out IAEA observers, and disabling cameras that monitored North Korea’s nuclear development. It had a similar response to the Six-Party Talks; months after negotiations were completed, North Korea tested missiles and restarted its nuclear program.
If the summits fail to usher in peace on the Korean peninsula or move the needle on denuclearizing North Korea, South Korean counterparts fear war on the peninsula. Arguably, the top unstated goal of the summit for South Korean negotiators is to prevent war.
If the summit fails, some may resume advocating a preventive attack. Others will instead push for a further increase of pressure on North Korea and its facilitators. The US government strategy of maximum pressure has not yet reached its full potential, and the administration has, thus far, been reluctant to go after Chinese banks that continue to violate US law and support North Korean ends. There is clearly room to increase sanctions pressure further.
Frankly, the US and South Korea should have contingencies ready in case negotiations don’t go as planned. It seems unlikely that North Korea would give up its nuclear and missile program when it has come so far in its weapons programs development. The US and South Korea might consider proposing dialogue that encourages confidence and security-building measures that reduce tensions, even if an agreement on denuclearization is elusive.
The Trump and Moon administrations should plan for outcomes—regardless of the success of the summits—that involve maintaining maximum pressure and the furtherance of policies that shine light on the egregious human rights abuses committed by the regime in Pyongyang.
Olivia Enos, policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, specializes in human rights and transnational criminal issues. These include human trafficking and human smuggling, drug trafficking, religious freedom, and other social and humanitarian challenges facing Asia.
Photo Credit: DMZ: South Korea – Joint Security Area. US Army Photo by Edward N. Johnson.