The Ledger on the Third Inter-Korean Summit

The third inter-Korean summit is taking place this week from September 18 to 20 in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea, signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration  on September 19, 2018.

Q1: What did Moon Jae-in accomplish?

A1: President Moon Jae-in achieved momentum towards making President Trump and Kim’s second summit possible, and he buoyed his popularity at home at a time when his popularity is falling amid an economic downturn. According to Realmeter, the numbers released this Monday showed that his approval rating is 53.1 percent, the lowest of his term. This inter-Korea summit was a matter of atmospherics: the bear hug between the two leaders symbolized a much closer relationship between their two countries. In terms of making progress toward denuclearization, Moon trumpeted some concrete steps, including an agreement to permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site in the presence of international observers. Kim also expressed willingness to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon if the United States takes “corresponding measures.” However, there are many ambiguities, the most obvious of which are: 1) No clarity on North Korea’s commitment to a declaration of their weapons and a timeline for dismantlement; 2) no clarity on the uranium-based nuclear program; 3) no clarity on other missile sites; 4) no clarity on what “corresponding measures” are necessary from the United States and little indication that the United States will make unilateral concessions absent major movement on North Korea's part.

Q2: What did Kim Jong-un achieve?

A2: Kim Jong-un also achieved momentum towards a second summit with President Trump—something that will further enhance his stature at home and in the region. If there is a second summit with President Trump, it is entirely feasible that Kim may lose interest in continued diplomacy with Moon. North Korea’s chief aim has long been to strike a grand bargain with the United States over the head of South Korea, rather than to seek reconciliation with South Korea per se. Kim has used summits with President Moon to entice President Trump to negotiate a peace declaration without taking concrete steps toward complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (such as a preliminary declaration of the North’s nuclear and missile programs and facilities) on the North’s part.

Kim no doubt hopes that an eventual peace treaty with the United States can be used in the future to discredit the UN Command, achieve relaxation of sanctions, and possibly even lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea, ultimately resulting in the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Those objectives remain for the future, but for now Kim did score a significant victory with Moon's promise to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex (opened in 2002 to provide economic opportunities for the North and closed by former South Korean president Park Geun-hye in 2016) “as conditions ripe” in North Korea and to open rail and road links to the North. Doing this will be difficult, however, given existing UN Security Council sanctions on the North.

Kim is not offering to dismantle the most important parts of his nuclear weapons program—uranium enrichment, solid-fueled ICBMs, or nuclear warheads. On the table are older systems that are not as valuable, such as testing for liquid fuel rockets or aging plutonium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, which are more easily detectable by U.S. satellites, unlike more modern uranium enrichment and solid-fueled rockets. The U.S. intelligence community recently assessed that North Korea continues to work on its nuclear weapons and missile programs, including continued production of fissile material and new ICBMs. As long as international pressure does not touch the core of North Korea's nuclear program, Kim can continue maintaining and expanding his nuclear-weapons capacity even while reaping the benefits of relaxed sanctions and enhanced international legitimacy. It increasingly looks as though North Korea’s endgame may be a permanent test ban while keeping (and amassing) their capabilities.

Q3: What did the United States get?

A3: The United States, like North Korea, got momentum towards a second summit with Kim.

President Trump tweeted today:

Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts. In the meantime there will be no Rocket or Nuclear testing. Hero remains to continue being returned home to the United States. Also, North and South Korea will file a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics. Very exciting!

Experts in the Trump administration will likely be unimpressed by the specifics announced in Pyongyang, which means the hard work remains for the U.S. negotiators.

Q4: What happens next?

A4: President Trump will meet with Prime Minister Abe and President Moon at the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Abe is deeply skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and will likely push back against premature movement towards a peace declaration or the lifting of sanctions. President Moon, by contrast, will try to convince President Trump to sign a peace declaration with the North. The U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun has just returned from a successful trip to Asia, and he will be meeting with his North Korean counterparts in Vienna in the near future. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has also invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to meet him in New York next week.

Q5: What are the challenges on the denuclearization front?

A5: Despite positive atmospherics surrounding the Moon-Kim summit, there are still significant challenges that remain. First is the sequencing problem: the North Korean position still is that they want a peace declaration first before any serious progress on denuclearization, and the U.S. position is that there has to be significant progress made on denuclearization before we will grant a peace declaration. The South Koreans are trying to bridge this divide by pushing a simultaneous “declaration for declaration.”

Secondly, the differing definition of denuclearization remains a problem. For the United States, denuclearization means complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons program, which will first require a declaration of the North’s nuclear weapons program. For North Korea, by contrast, denuclearization means the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, which is why the Pyongyang Joint Declaration said that “the peninsula must be made into a place of peace without nuclear weapons or nuclear threat.” The North Korean officials have also indicated elsewhere that North Korea is prepared for complete denuclearization talks as a nuclear weapons state when other “nuclear weapons states” do so under Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the United States, the UK, and others.

The third challenge will be making sure Washington and Seoul stay on the same page in dealing with the North going forward. It’s clear that the Moon administration wants to deepen inter-Korean cooperation on the economic front and push for a peace declaration even while still maintaining sanctions on the North. The Trump administration so far has taken a firmer stance, although it is unclear where President Trump himself stands going into his next summit with Kim.

Given all of the economic incentives presented to the North at this summit, the negotiations are headed in a direction where pressure will be put on the United States by North Korea, South Korea, and China to accept a peace declaration and lift sanctions despite the absence of any significant progress towards denuclearization. This is a dangerous path that could do harm to the U.S.-South Korea alliance without better policy coordination between the allies.

Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair, and Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Sue Mi Terry