“I NEED to have some Pyeongyang naeng-myeon*.” The day after the 2018 inter-Korean summit, my friend expressed his desire to try one of the dishes President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had during their shared meal. Although that comment was made partly in jest, it also reflected a deeper hope of restoring relations with our northern neighbor. My friend wasn’t the only one with filled with optimism. On online media and in schools across South Korea, enthusiasm and excitement buoyed by the success of the summit had many thinking about going to Europe through North Korea by train. Although the anticipation is refreshing, one must remember to not count the chickens before they’re hatched. The 2018 inter-Korean summit, however successful it might have seemed, has followed prior summits that set similar promises and goals, only to fail. Then, learning from the mistakes of the past, how can the Panmunjom declaration become the turning point for Korean peace and prosperity?
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it
On March 2000, after decades of hostility, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung gave a speech in Berlin, Germany. He promised economic aid for North Korea and the fulfillment of the “sunshine policy” in what would later be called the Berlin Declaration. Only three months later, Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met in Pyeongyang for the first ever inter-Korean summit and signed the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea (6.15)(6.15 Declaration). It aimed for independent, Korean-led reunification to solve humanitarian issues, facilitate the reunion of separated family members, and cooperate economically within the peninsula.
On 2007, the second inter-Korean summit was again held in Pyeongyang. Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung’s successor, continued the endeavors that started with the 6.15 Declaration, facilitating the 2007 North–South Summit Declaration. Though the main, stated goal was the realization of the 6.15 declaration, it also addressed previously unmentioned issues. It covered nuclear arms issues and the entailing multiparty talks for denuclearization, as well as the replacement of the North Korean armistice regime with a more peaceful one. However, the continued nuclear testing of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the change of government in the Blue House led to an unsuccessful implementation of the declaration. Under the conservative governments of Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, relations worsened and communication between the two countries was kept to the bare minimum.
A new start: peace
When Moon assumed office in June 2017, tensions between Pyeongyang and Washington were high. North Korea was incessant in its nuclear weapons development and testing; their efforts concentrated on the InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program and culminated in the successful testing of missiles capable of reaching the United States. With North Korea’s continued provocations and threats against the United States, U.S. President Donald Trump took a hardline stance against the North and stated that it would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In response, in an attempt to cool down animosities, South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to take the “driver’s seat” in dealing with issues on the Korean peninsula. Following in the footsteps of former president Kim Dae-jung, Moon proclaimed a “New” Berlin Declaration in 2017 and repeatedly guaranteed the security of Kim Jong-un’s regime. In his 2018 New Year’s Address, Kim Jong-un responded by sending athletes to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics under a unified flag with South Korea. Subsequently, a special envoy sent from the Blue House to Pyeongyang arranged the inter-Korean and North Korea-United States summits.
At 9:29 a.m., April 27, 2018, Moon met Kim Jong-un at the military demarcation line in Panmunjom. The two leaders shook hands and crossed the border together, while dozens of cameras captured the historic moment. This was the first time a North Korean leader had set foot on southern soil. With the live broadcasting of the event receiving global coverage, two leaders engaged in discussion both publicly in the Freedom House and privately at a footbridge in Panmunjom.
The talks culminated with the two leaders jointly announcing the “Panmunjom Declaration.” Based on the previous 6.15 and 2007 North–South Summit declarations, the new declaration aims to implement all previous agreements and declarations. Objectives included the improvement in inter-Korean relations, military cooperation, and efforts towards perpetual peace. Many of the goals are already being enacted as both countries removed loudspeakers from the demarcation zone (DMZ), South Korea suspended its people from sending anti-Kim leaflets to the North, and North Korea changed its standard time to match that of the South’s. Additionally, on May 25, North Korea destroyed its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in front of foreign journalists, including those from South Korea.
Game changer or more of the same?
Although the summit conveys hope and optimism, the Panmunjom declaration is in fact highly analogous to previous agreements. However, experts argue that the main difference between this summit and past summits is not the contents of the agreement but rather the geopolitical circumstances of the peninsula. In other words, the difference lies in Pyeongyang’s acquisition of nuclear arms and ICBMs; in past talks, the North was merely brandishing its nuclear possibilities. In September of 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, causing an earthquake of 6.3 seismic magnitude, according to the United States Geological Survey. Pyeongyang reported that the device was a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted on the head of an ICBM. Two months earlier, Pyeongyang claimed to have conducted the first successful ICBM test that can “reach anywhere in the world.” While the 2007 second inter-Korean summit and following talks were mostly aimed at stopping the North from acquiring nuclear arms, the 2018 inter-Korean summit and the potential North Korea-U.S. summit focus on finding measures to remove existing weapons.
Another key difference of the 2018 inter-Korean summit is the change in North Korea’s leadership. Put simply, Kim Jong-un cannot be expected to act as his father, Kim Jong-il, did. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Professor John Delury (Associate Prof., Graduate School of International Studies) gave his insight on Kim Jong-un based on the leader’s recent interactions with other leaders. “He is being described as knowledgeable, flexible. He listens, and he talks. You could see that in the body language [of the leaders] at the inter-Korean summit.” He added that “there are indications that he is competent, that he is well informed, he follows media, and he understands dynamics in our countries.” The professor commented that these analyses of Kim match the assessments of many North Korean experts—that Kim desires big changes for his country. “He is starting a new ambitious phase. He announced it to the North Korean people through a new strategy of all efforts on economic construction instead of the previous policy of Byung Jin, [which was a] dual tract-half nuclear, half economic. Now it is all economic.”
The final, and most important, distinction is the fact that North Korea-U.S. was planned after the inter-Korean summit. On May 10, 2018, Trump declared through Twitter that the North Korea-U.S. summit will take place in Singapore, where the U.S. president was to meet with the DPRK leader for the first time in history. Though in Professor Delury’s view, the Trump administration is willing to normalize relations with Pyeongyang, he stresses that normalization has economic aspects to it. On May 11, 2018, in a press availability with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearize, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends.” Later, in an interview with Fox News, Pompeo remarked that “we’re ready to see American businesses going into North Korea … building their energy infrastructure and helping them with agriculture.” However, on May 24, Trump cancelled the upcoming summit with Kim in an official letter, stating that “North Korean hostilities” had rendered the meeting “inappropriate.” In response, North Korean diplomat Kim Kye-gwan, on behalf of the Supreme Leader, expressed Pyeongyang’s continued willingness to hold the summit with the United States for “the peace of the peninsula and the world
Since the main goal of Pyeongyang is regime security, as analyzed in the May 2018 issue of The Annals, the normalization of relations between North Korea and the United States will be crucial for the success of the Panmunjom Declaration. The summit would have further legitimized Kim’s rule, giving more confidence to Pyeongyang and the economic growth would have improved Kim’s domestic support. As discussed, due to the leverage of the United States, the fate of the Panmunjom declaration will also lie with the North Korea-U.S. relations.
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The historic meeting of Kim and Moon in Panmunjom sent waves of hope from the peninsula to the rest of the world. After nine years of enmity, the two Koreas are back on track to achieve peace. There are also signs that the North, under Kim Jong-un, is willing to make concessions and changes. However, past summits and agreements teach us a valuable lesson; the inter-Korean issues cannot be resolved without first improving North Korea-U.S. relations. Thus, the Blue House must take an active role as a mediator between Pyeongyang and Washington. The process will be long, tedious, and many compromises will have to be made along the way. Yet, this is the path to realizing the Panmunjom Declaration. If these steps are taken, then one day, we might find ourselves enjoying Pyeongyang naeng-myeon with our Northern brothers.