Written by Liang Tuang Nah.

Following the recently concluded summit in Pyeongyang between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea from 18-20 September, it is clear that the latter has emerged as a winner with easily reversible agreements based on the sentimentality of Korean reconciliation, and insubstantial concessions that hardly scratch the surface of nuclear disarmament.

Summarising the Pertinent parts of the Pyeongyang Joint Declaration

Examining the actual text of the Pyeongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 found at The National Committee on North Korea, it can be argued that Kim and his regime have emerged as the clear beneficiaries of this third inter-Korean summit.

Essentially, the Pyeongyang Joint Declaration commits both the ROK and DPRK to: i) implementing military de-escalation measures across their shared border, ii) furthering economic, infrastructural and social cooperation, including transportation link building, joint economic zone development and epidemic prevention initiatives, iii) implementing permanent measures to reunite families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, iv) furthering cultural, social and sporting exchanges, and most importantly v) agreeing that the Korean peninsula must be denuclearised. Regarding this last point, Kim pledged to permanently decommission the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform with a possible option to dismantle nuclear facilities at Yeongbyeon, if the U.S. reciprocates with appropriate concessions.

Analysis of the third North-South Korea summit reveals that Kim Jong-un has given up little while receiving much. The U.S. and ROK would be well advised to be firm and cautions in their dealings with Pyongyang to avoid being exploited.”      

The Implications of the Joint Declaration

Firstly, three positive but easily reversible components of the declaration will be analysed. Concerning the Kim regime’s support for sustained reunions between separated families from the North and South, this would be well received in the ROK and would most certainly improve the popularity of the Moon administration, since Moon managed to negotiate such a concession. Similarly, pro-reunification sectors of the electorate would perceive cultural and social exchanges with their northern brethren, along with unified Korean representation at the next Olympics as grounds for rejoicing. Lastly, military de-escalation and security stability along the DMZ and in Southern provinces closer to North Korea would most certainly be welcomed across all sectors of South Korean society. But inasmuch as all this would provide positive optics for the summit and boost Moon’s political standing, it arguably benefits the Kim regime more while being easily undone by a proverbial snap of the mercurial young leader’s fingers, if the results of his attempts at international diplomacy ever turn sour.

It should be noted that there is minimal cost to Pyeongyang in agreeing to more family reunions, civil exchanges or joint sporting participation. Furthermore, any northern financing shortfalls for these feel-good events would more than likely be covered by Seoul or South Korean corporations eager to do their bit to smooth the road to reunification. As for curtailing military antagonism, there might actually be reputational benefits to Kim as the world is so used to seeing a bellicose North Korea that any improvements to stability on the Korean peninsula would be quietly celebrated. Holistically, it should also be noted that all these initiatives with the ROK help to rehabilitate the DPRK’s image and alleviate the isolation imposed on the latter as a result of its illegal nuclear and missile programmes, all without ever having verifiably given up a single warhead or missile.

Next, South Korea would benefit from economic cooperation with the North given the latter’s educated workforce, cheap wages and significant natural resources.  Yet, it must be noted that the ROK’s developed economy can find partners anywhere around the globe, whereas an international pariah like the DPRK can only look to China as an industrial patron. Moreover, the North’s impoverished finances would mean that the South would end up funding the lion’s share of any capital expenses for all joint projects. Hence, if international sanctions against North Korea are ever lifted, Seoul would be bankrolling Pyeongyang’s economic rehabilitation plans.

Lastly, even though the Pyeongyang declaration commits the Kim regime to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the exact some commitment was stated in the Trump-Kim joint statement signed in Singapore on 12 June. Basically, both the DPRK and U.S. still have fundamental differences as to how and when this is to be achieved, and unless both sides can reach a mutual agreement on the important details pertaining to what denuclearisation responsibilities Pyeongyang must fulfil, real negotiative progress will be elusive.

Be that as it may, the third Moon-Kim summit does not hold the Kim regime to any concrete or meaningful nuclear disarmament. The dismantlement of the Dongchang-ri missile test site is purely symbolic and will still leave Pyeongyang free to build another test site, or even test fire a missile from a mobile Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), which is a vehicle which can carry a missile to new locations and prepare the aforementioned missile for launch in short order. Even if the U.S. subsequently makes a valuable concession to the DPRK and the latter demolishes its nuclear materials manufacturing facilities at Yeongbyeon, that would still leave North Korea in possession of an unknown number of nuclear warheads and the capability to manufacture missiles to deliver these warheads to targets in South Korea, Japan, Guam and even the continental United States. Therefore, all “concessions” agreed by Kim thus far allow the preservation of his nuclear arsenal and concurrently give the impression that he has made denuclearisation progress, providing pretext for the PRC and Russia to unofficially ease sanctions on the DPRK.

Conclusion and Recommendations

It is apparent that Kim Jong-un is a shrewd, wily and cunning negotiator who plans to have his proverbial cake and eat it too. Even though his Byungjin ideology of nuclear arms retention and economic prosperity flies in the face of nuclear non-proliferation norms, he seems determined to achieve this while manipulating Seoul into subsidising his economy, counting on PRC-Russian versus U.S. rivalry to erode sanctions integrity, and hoping that President Trump is willing to accept insubstantial denuclearisation measures. Kim cannot be allowed to get away with this.

Although Kim can certainly be expected to exploit Moon’s dovish proclivities and promote his regime’s agenda by accepting the latter’s invitation to visit Seoul for the 4th North-South summit this year, Washington does not have to stand idly by. Indeed, it is recommended that the Trump administration: i) remain firm on the North’s nuclear disarmament by insisting on verifiable denuclearisation steps, such as an IAEA verified accounting of warheads and plutonium and uranium stocks, before further requests for U.S.-DPRK engagement is granted, ii) exert pressure at the United Nations Security Council and through bilateral diplomacy to reinforce or refresh sanctions enforcement, and iii) be more resistant to Kim’s direct messaging towards Trump. Kim can say whatever he wants – such as his statement declaring his “unwavering faith” in Trump – but the former needs to be reminded that talk is cheap and only nuclear arms relinquishment can bring about normalised relations between Washington and Pyeongyang.

Liang Tuang Nah, PhD is a Research Fellow at the Military Studies Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Image credit: CC Republic of Korea/Flickr.

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