In a dramatic attempt to restart the Korea peace process, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for the third time in Pyongyang September 18–20.
The summit, announced as North Korea was preparing for massive celebrations Sunday marking its founding in 1948, couldn’t come at a better time. Over the summer, the negotiations Moon and Kim initiated last spring with the Trump administration to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula reached an impasse that is proving difficult to overcome.
The dividing line is Washington’s rejection of a demand from North Korea to bring a formal end to the Korean War, and US insistence that international economic sanctions on the North remain in place until it shows concrete signs of getting rid of its nuclear arsenal.
“We’re not going to give anything until North Korea does what it says” about denuclearizing, Andrea Thompson, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, told reporters on Friday.
But the dispute is not just between the United States and North Korea. A chasm has also opened up between Washington and Seoul that threatens to undercut the bilateral military alliance created in 1953 to fend off another Korean War.
At issue is whether South Korea has the sovereign right to follow through on its plans—codified in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration signed by Moon and Kim—to make peace within the borders of its own country. This came to a head in August, when the Trump administration, citing US and UN sanctions, expressed opposition to North and South Korean plans to open a liaison office in the Gaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ.
Last week, the Pentagon, acting through the UN Command in Korea that it controls, blocked plans by both Koreas to inspect rail lines in the North that are crucial to their plans for closer economic ties. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the US Commander in Korea, has also expressed reservations over South Korean plans to remove some guard posts from the border with the North as a way to reduce military tensions.
“We have a big problem coming with South Korea,” a US official deeply involved in the Trump administration’s Korea policies told journalist Daniel Sneider in an August 27 article widely quoted in Washington. “It has reached the point where the South Koreans are determined to press ahead. They no longer feel the need to act in parallel with us.” Sneider, a lecturer at Stanford, reported that some officials “even fear the alliance itself may be in jeopardy.”
Meanwhile, inside the think tanks that guide American policy, the pressure is on for South Korea to follow US dictates. “The United States and South Korea must harmonize their approaches to the North Korea problem, to counter coordinated efforts by Kim Jong-un to drive them apart,” Patrick Cronin of the hawkish Center for a New American Security wrote last week.
Comments like these underscore the stark choice facing the two Koreas at this juncture.
Do they move forward together to reconcile and end the Korean War that has divided them for so long, with the United States playing a useful role by supporting a peace process and ending seven decades of hostility toward Pyongyang? Or will South Korea be forced to stick to its American ally, keep the military and economic pressure on North Korea, and possibly spark a deeper military clash in the region?
The Koreas are clearly hoping for the former. On Sunday, in the huge parade marking its 70th anniversary, North Korea didn’t display its ICBMs that are capable of hitting the United States, and instead emphasized Kim’s new focus on economic development. As one analysis in the South Korean media put it, the missiles “appear to have been omitted out of respect for North Korea’s continuing dialogue with the US to break through their deadlock over denuclearization measures and the end-of-war declaration.”
CNN reporter Will Ripley, one of dozens of foreign reporters in Pyongyang to witness the event, noted that the “Mass Games” held after the parade included a “historic nod” to President Moon. “Video footage from Moon and Kim’s inter-Korean summit in April was shown and received rousing applause from the primarily North Korean audience in Pyongyang’s May Day stadium,” he reported.
Meanwhile, during the emergency discussions in Pyongyang last week between Kim and Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser, the North Korean leader expressed his will to “completely remove the danger of armed conflict and horror of war from the Korean peninsula.” He added that, while US-North Korean talks have “suffered recent setbacks,” the North “will continue to trust Trump at this critical juncture.” He also said that he wanted the denuclearization process to be completed by the end of Trump’s first term.
In a surprise development Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that, after making these conciliatory remarks, Kim had sent a “very warm, very positive” letter to Trump asking for another summit meeting. The president, she said, is open to the idea and his staff is “already in the process of coordinating” one. The developments clearly pleased Trump, who is facing perhaps his most severe domestic crisis yet, with high-ranking officials in his own White House turning against him. “Thank you to Chairman Kim,” he tweeted after Kim’s remarks in Pyongyang were published. “We will get it done together!”
To do that, however, both Trump and Kim will have to make compromises to bridge their differences over the pace and timing of North Korea’s denuclearization.
“It’s a sequencing problem with North Korea right now,” explained Sue Mi Terry to MSNBC. Terry, a former CIA officer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, consistently supports a hard-line policy. North Korea “wants normalization and a peace regime first before they take active steps towards denuclearization, and we’re saying they need to denuclearize first.”
Former US officials assert that Pyongyang’s basic stance hasn’t changed. “North Korea has returned to the tired demand that what it needs before moving toward denuclearization is some kind of proof that the United States has abandoned its ‘hostile policy,’” Christopher Hill, who led US negotiations with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, declares in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
But as much as Hill wants to ridicule this linkage, North Korea views the US reluctance to embrace a peace agreement as a betrayal of the promises Trump made in Singapore during their June summit. After all, the first two points of the joint declaration in Singapore were to “establish new US-DPRK relations” and “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” (The DPRK, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is the formal name for North Korea.)
Discerning readers of North Korean state media also point out that a joint declaration ending the war was the clear understanding of North Korea after Singapore. The US government “supported the issue of terminating war and this has already been agreed upon at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks,” North Korea’s KCNA declared in a July 24 dispatch captured by the media site NK News.
So it came as somewhat of a shock to US pundits to learn that Trump had, in fact, promised Kim that he would sign an agreement ending the war. That was confirmed on August 29 by Alex Ward, an enterprising reporter at Vox with good sources inside the White House. “It makes sense why the North Koreans are angry,” one US official told him. “Having Trump promise a peace declaration and then moving the goalposts and making it conditional would be seen as the US reneging on its commitments.”
The US demand to Pyongyang that it dismantle most of its arsenal before the United States signs off on an end to the war “is likely what has led to the current stalemate in negotiations between the two countries—and the increasingly hostile rhetoric from North Korea,” Vox concluded.
Last week, the Moon government reiterated that it disagrees with the US stance. “The position of the South Korean government is that an end-of-war declaration is a political declaration and the first step toward building trust between related countries. North Korea feels the same way,” Chung, Moon’s envoy, said during his September 6 briefing on the upcoming summit.
How the Process Broke Down
The initial indications of a major breakdown in the US–North Korea talks came on August 24, when President Trump abruptly canceled an upcoming trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, saying “we are not making sufficient progress” on denuclearization. A few days later, Trump blamed China and its disagreements with him over trade for the problems with the North, and kept the door open for further negotiations with Kim.
But, in an ominous sign of his own impatience with the process, Trump also suggested that the United States and South Korea might join Japan in military exercises that both he and Kim have called provocative, adding that they might be “far bigger than ever before.” Almost immediately, senior US officials let it be known that Pompeo’s trip was vetoed after he received a “belligerent” letter from Kim’s government that allegedly threatened to restart nuclear and missile tests if the talks broke down.
That was largely a cover story fed to Josh Rogin, a conservative columnist at The Washington Post who is consistently sought out by hard-liners to promote their views of the North as unyielding and untrustworthy. A different story began to emerge when CNN got hold of the letter, which warned that denuclearization talks were “again at stake and may fall apart.” That sounded more like a restating of positions than a “belligerent” threat to go back to a military standoff.
Suh Hoon, Moon’s intelligence chief and South Korea’s primary contact with the Kim government, provided what may be the most accurate summary of what happened. In testimony to the Korean National Assembly, he said the cancellation of Pompeo’s visit “was because the North asked for the adoption of a declaration ending the war as a prerequisite while the U.S. asked for a list of nuclear weapon[s] first.”
But beneath the surface, there was far more going on.
As many South Koreans are beginning to realize, the United States is not all that interested in ending the Korean War or giving the two Koreas room to work things out on their own. President Moon himself spelled out the stakes on August 15, a national holiday in both North and South Korea celebrating Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
In a nationally televised speech, Moon made a ringing declaration of his engagement policies with the North and said they were integral to the peace process. “Developments in inter-Korean relations are not the by-effects of progress in the relationship between the North and the United States,” he declared in an unmistakable rebuke to US hard-liners on his plans to open the liaison office in Gaesong. “Rather, advancement in inter-Korean relations is the driving force behind denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The US response was swift. On August 20, four days before Trump’s White House cited North Korean intransigence in canceling Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, US news reports cited an unidentified senior US official as saying that the establishment of a liaison office could be a violation of not only UN Security Council sanctions, but also the separate sanctions that Washington unilaterally imposed on Pyongyang.
The official, most likely hard-line National Security Adviser John Bolton or one of his deputies, was quickly contradicted by the Korean government. “Establishing a liaison office is a basic project aimed at easing military tensions and bringing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters.
But the audacious decision by the US-controlled UN Command to block the North-South rail project brought the divisions into sharp focus. Specifically, the command refused permission for a South Korean train to travel from Seoul and cross the border into the North so technicians from both countries could conduct “a joint inspection on the North Korean stretch of the line between Kaesong and Sinuiju,” which they hope will soon link their countries.
The problem this presented to South Korea was spelled out by Hankyoreh, the progressive daily. “The South Korean government’s position is that the project in question does not represent an area subject to UN or US sanctions against North Korea,” it reported. “Critics have been vocal in proclaiming that Washington’s interference in inter-Korean cooperation efforts to implement the terms of the Apr. 27 Panmunjeom Declaration have reached the point of infringing on sovereignty.”
Kim, knowing Moon’s precarious position with Washington, has come to South Korea’s defense on these issues. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party newspaper, issued a stinging editorial on September 6, saying the United States is pulling both Koreas’ “hind legs to prevent every (inter-Korean) project, including the opening of the North-South joint liaison office, North-South railway projects, North-South road modernization projects, the reactivation of Kaesong Industrial Complex and resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism.”
Liaison Office Will Open Anyway
The Moon government has returned the favor. A day after Kim met in Pyongyang with Moon’s delegation, South Korea’s foreign ministry directly contradicted US government officials and pundits by welcoming North Korea’s closure of its key nuclear and long-range missile-engine test sites as meaningful steps toward denuclearization.
Kim Jong-un, according to Moon’s envoy, had complained that his steps toward denuclearization, including the recent destruction of a missile testing site, were not being recognized by the United States or the international community. “Given that the steps were voluntary, [the ministry] views them as meaningful ones toward the realization of complete denuclearization,” a South Korean government spokesman told reporters.
A day later, South Korea announced that the North-South liaison office will likely open this week in Gaesong despite the US opposition.
“South and North Korea are now holding discussions on the opening date of the liaison office and other details,” the Unification Ministry said. And on September 7, in an interview with Indonesian reporters, President Moon said that he intends to establish a permanent peace by the end of the year.
“The most basic goal of our policy is that there must never be another war on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. South Korea, he added, “will take all necessary measures not only for the development of the South-North Korean relationship but also for the development of the North Korea-U.S. relationship and acceleration of the denuclearization process.”
The question now is whether the hard-liners in the White House and Washington’s think tanks can be convinced to go along.