Inter-Korean Summits Fuel US-North Korea Talks Momentum

Upma Kashyap
February 14, 2019


The second summit between the U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Un is likely to be held in the middle of February 2019. The main objective of this meeting is North Korea’s denuclearisation, which still seems an unattainable goal. The first historic U.S.-North Korea Singapore summit on June 12 and the three Inter-Korean summits were held in the year 2018 amidst persisting threats from the North Korean nuclear program. The Inter-Korean summits emphasized on peaceful co-existence between the two Korean states without reunification, by reducing the risk of military conflict, building trust and increasing economic connectivity. The meeting between the leaders of America and North Korea underscored complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s leader has already called for more such Inter-Korean summits in the year 2019.

Since the armistice negotiations of 1953-54, the Korean peninsula has been officially divided into North and South. Both Korean states underwent a series of conflicts throughout the years of national division. However, the two states persistently kept striving to restore peace through exchanges and talks even in the aftermath of horrible tragedies.. Both states began initial efforts by opening the channel of dialogue and building trust in the 1990s to discuss the reunion of separated families. The 1990s also witnessed a prime minister level meeting between South and North Korea, the first ever such a meeting since the national division. This was followed by signing the Agreement on Exchange, cooperation, aggression and reconciliation in February 1992. Further, both Korean nations first agreed to recognize the existing different structure of the two states, peaceful co-existence and the idea of formation of unified Korea in the first ever Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang on June 12-15, 2000. The summit was presided over by President Kim Dare Jung and Chairman Kim Jung II of the National Defense Commission. The second Inter-Korean Summit was staged on October 2-4, 2007 in Pyongyang between President Roh Moo-Hyun and Chairman Jung II of the National Defense Commission to further advance bilateral relations.

An intense geopolitical competition among the major powers is underway in the Indo-Pacific region. Today, the region is facing a wide array of security issues, having potential to impact its political, economic and cultural ethos. In 2015, the Russia and China rapprochement escalated concerns for the United States in the Indo- Pacific. In the following years, North Korea successfully conducted hydrogen bomb tests and produced miniaturized nuclear warheads that can be installed on its ballistic missiles. The Trump administration perceived North Korea as the most pressing challenge of the year 2017. Amidst these tensions the third Inter-Korea Summit gathered support from the international community to resolve the escalating security crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The summit was a stepping stone toward the permanent peace on the Korean issue and came up with an agenda of North Korea’s denuclearisation and advancement of Inter-Korean relations.- In plans to achieve these goals, The South Korean leader Moon Jae took a gradual and comprehensive approach, tackling both issues of inter-Korean relations and the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear threat. Simultaneously, he also worked for the  institutionalisation of a lasting mechanism of peace and further laid the foundation for peaceful unification through mutually beneficial cooperation.

The high level Inter-Korean talks clearly set the stage for the unprecedented, historic U.S.-North Korea June 12, Singapore summit in the year 2018. The summit represented a significant de-escalation of tensions between nuclear powers. It also produced a joint statement pledging that the U.S. and DPRK would commit to establish bilateral relations in accordance with the desire of the people of the two states for peace and prosperity. But the vague worded statement did not go well in the aftermath of the summit. Soon the international community realised that the joint statement affirming the denuclearisation of the North Korean peninsula is at best ‘extremely premature’ and that the North Korean threat has not gone away yet. Despite high level diplomacy among United States, North Korea and South Korea, there appeared limited progress on North Korea’s denuclearisation.

The September 18-20, 2018 inter-Korean talks brought a new kind of momentum into the stalled U.S.-North Korean talks. Both Korean leaders agreed to progress in a prompt manner. Kim repeated his U.S.-North Korea summit pledge to dismantle the Tonchang-ri missile and satellite launch site including ‘permanent dismantlement’ of its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. Kim and Moon also pledged to jointly participate in the 2020 Olympics and bid to co-host the 2032 Olympics. However experts are still skeptical about Kim’s promises. The summit certainly ended North Korea’s economic and diplomatic isolation, further institutionalised ROK-DPRK rapprochement limiting the ‘maximum pressure’ and ‘military attack’ options of United States against North Korea. The meeting does raise questions about how much influence United States will have on North Korea over the coming days as South Korea played a significant role in bringing North Korea on the negotiating table with the United States for peace talks. Also, Moon has been working as a mediator and facilitator of dialogue between the Trump and Kim on the issue of ‘complete denuclearisation’. The South Korean leader greatly reduced the tensions, kept the momentum of the talks and prepared a ground for peace talks. The Trump administration must frame its policy toward North Korea which is in sync with South Korea’s foreign policy towards the North. As such, the future U.S-North Korea Summits and Inter-Korean summits must go hand in hand for any substantive progress.

*** The author is at present an International Exchange Student, Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland and a Doctoral Scholar at the Centre for Canadian, U.S. & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS) Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***