Sixty-five years after North and South Korea signed an armistice suspending the bloody war between them, the two countries say they will formally put a stop to hostilities, saying they intend to conclude a permanent peace agreement this year.
Leaders of the two Koreas also said they “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
“We will totally end war on the Korean peninsula,” pledged South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who promised that “a new era of peace” has arrived.
But a summit on Friday, which marked the first time a North Korean leader set foot on South Korean soil, failed to yield specific agreements on dismantling or otherwise limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s formal assent to denuclearization marks an important shift for a country whose tests of ever-larger nuclear devices in recent years have created global fears. But that broad commitment does little to resolve the issues that have made North Korea a target of global concern and economic sanctions.
Instead, the summit brimmed with the historic moments and images its planners had arranged in exquisite detail.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un stepped momentously across the military demarcation line that separates two nations technically still at war, the first northern leader to do so. Then, in a seemingly spontaneous moment, he invited Mr. Moon back across to set foot on northern soil.
The two leaders smiled and shared pleasantries about cold noodles and taking “a path toward the future together.”
They slipped between carefully-chosen sets, shoveling dirt onto a tree (one that had already been planted) before strolling down a footbridge for a bench chat serenaded by bird song.
Then, for 30 extraordinary minutes broadcast live on television — silent, save for the birdsong — they sat across a table from each other, outside, with reeds swaying in the breeze.
Mr. Kim smiled, adjusted his glasses, leaned in and wrinkled his brow in thought. Mr. Moon leaned toward him, gesturing as he replied.
It was the sort of genuine-looking moment that the stage-managers of this summit had sought — a picture of peaceable collaboration they hope will endure, and inspire renewed ties between the two countries.
Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim threw their arms around each other in a hug after signing the joint declaration for peace, prosperity, and unification in the Korean Peninsula.
“Denuclearization measures taken by North Korea are very significant, and complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula will be starting,” Mr. Moon said, adding he will travel to North Korea in the fall.
Mr. Kim made no mention of denuclearization in his remarks, saying only that “I hope that we will be able to live very peacefully in the future as soon as possible.
But it’s unlikely the agreement will achieve the loosening of international pressure that North Korea has sought, nor does it commit Pyongyang to dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
“I don’t think the White House will be willing to ease up on sanctions until North Korea pledges to agree to CVID” — complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
North Korea needs to make “a complete declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and begins a process of verifiable dismantlement and destruction of those facilities,” Ms. Glaser said.
“I’m not very optimistic we will get very far along in this process.”
Mr. Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to meet in May or June, and the agreement Friday is “a step toward” their summit, and their discussion of denuclearization, said Christopher Green, an expert on North Korea with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“What we have now is a situation where much hinges on the capacity of the United States and North Korea to make progress on that issue during their own talks.”
Even a more durable peace regime “doesn’t actually mean much,” he said. “It’s extremely symbolic – if you believe that symbols matter, then it’s important. But does it really make North Korea any safer, for example? Of course it doesn’t.”
No country that has achieved nuclear weapons technology has ever abandoned it. Mr. Kim’s arsenal of deadly weaponry has been a hard-won attempt to guarantee his regime’s security, and scholars have expressed doubt that he will give it up.
Instead, the two Koreas agreed to a series of lesser measures, including a non-aggression agreement that “precludes the use of force in any form against each other,” establishment of a joint communication office, creation of a maritime peace zone “to prevent accidental military clashes,” and modernization of roads and railroads along an “eastern transportation corridor.”
For families divided by the military demarcation line, a reunion event will take place in August.
The most significant measure is a pledge to terminate the Korean War: “Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further.”
But even that language was carefully calibrated. It did not, for example, mention a peace treaty.
“What they said was that they would terminate the armistice and move onto discussing the peace regime on the Korean peninsula. To be signing a peace treaty — that’s a long-term project,” said Kim Jin-ah, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis. “What we’re going to do this year is transform the armistice into something new.”
Indeed, the list of commitments largely amounts to “just a wish list,” said Matthias Maass, an international studies scholar at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Long-term, we just don’t know. Because normally you have a summit at the end of a negotiation process. Now they flipped this around and said, ‘let’s have a summit to kick off a negotiation process.’ ”
It’s also difficult to judge Mr. Kim’s resolve. “Are these promises that will not be kept? We’ve seen that tactic from North Korea in the 1990s almost on a weekly basis,” Prof. Maass said. “Or has there been a change in strategy on the part of North Korea?”
Still, he added, “having diplomacy, having the leaders of two countries talk — especially in a problematic and potentially hostile area — is good in itself.”
The Globe and Mail, April 27, 2018