Kim Jung-un, the leader of North Korea, once again captivated the world with his appearance on the international stage. His debut was a visit to Beijing in late March 2018. Then, on April 27, it was to the landmark of Korean division — the Panmunjom — the Truce Village in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face along the 38th Parallel. Kim crossed the parallel line southward for the historic third inter-Korean summit. It was a 12 hour-long event that included a summit talk, a break, a stroll, the monumental event of planting a tree, and a banquet.
Just before the banquet hosted by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the summary of the summit talks was delivered to the public. It was a one big disappointment because it was simply a replica of the previous summit in 2007. The only difference was the agreement by the two leaders to declare the end of the Korean War by the end of the year. Other than that, the rest was a carryover from the last summit. Family reunions, the transformation of the conflict zone in the Northern Limited Line in the West Sea of Korea and the DMZ into a peace zone, economic cooperation including connecting highways and railroad between the two Koreas, and people-to-people exchanges were reiterated again.
Why was there no progress from the past? It could be justified by the lack of continuity in the incumbent leadership in South Korea’s politics. Moon’s party failed to capture a win in the past two presidential contests that were all won by conservative candidates — Lee Myong-bak in 2007 and Park Geun-hye in 2012. Such political turnouts only buried the 2007 inter-Korean summit declaration, also known as “October 7 Declaration,” into the ground, preventing it from reaching full blossom. Moon simply exhumed the declaration in an attempt to resuscitate it. Moon holds strong nostalgia for his predecessor as he served as secretary general the whole term of Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. In this vein, his policy including the North Korean one all emulated that of Roh’s.
Nevertheless, the so-called “Panmunjom Declaration” from the recently concluded inter-Korean summit cannot escape criticism for its lack of progress. Given his first-hand experience in inter-Korean relations including the summit from Roh’s government, Moon could have been more creative in drafting the declaration instead of dwelling on the past. Innovative vision was lacking and so were specifics in the follow-up measures to the “Beginning of New Peace,” the motto for this time’s inter-Korean summit. The declaration failed to produce any kind of specifications that can at least allude to how the two Koreas will keep their promises.
Two Moon Juncture Brews Controversy in Seoul
It is not clear to date of Kim’s motivation behind his decision to take part in the inter-Korean summit. American president Donald Trump believes it was the efficacy of his “maximum pressure” on Kim that left him no other choice but to surrender to the opportunity for dialogue. Moon on the other hand thinks it was the fruition of his persistent call for talks with Pyongyang and the success of his articulated diplomatic efforts against the American president’s contemplation of military strikes against North Korea. Many pundits have attributed Kim’s decision to his declaration of North Korea as a nuclear power. They inferred this by taking the proclamation at face value, thereby highlighting Kim’s boasts as confidence with a “nothing to lose” mentality.
Kim had taken the world by many more surprises before and during the inter-Korean summit. One prior surprise was his willingness to accept a peace deal that includes a US military presence in South Korea. Kim’s statement seemed to be a reversal and contrary to what the world was otherwise convinced of about his country’s long-held official position on the issue. Kim wanted to discount the surprise with a gentle reminder that the idea did not originate from him but from his father and forefather. His second surprise came during the summit when he agreed in principle to end the Korean War by the end of the year and to conclude a peace treaty to replace the existing Armistice. His agreement was inserted in the Joint Declaration.
Kim surprising moves indeed engendered consequences in South Korea. South Korean society, already polarized between pro-North and anti-North positions, demonstrated its inherent propensity to divide by a mere political rhetoric from outside — a vulnerability that has often been exploited by external powers seeking to maximize their interests via the divide-and-rule tactic.
Moon was not free from this vulnerability. South Korean society’s immediate reaction was obvious: polarization. On the question of declaring the end of the Korean War, most of the South Korean public welcomed the idea as timely and more than appropriate for their beliefs about Kim’s sincerity, while others wanted it to be preconditioned with an apology for the North’s invasion and atrocities inflicted on hundreds of thousands of innocent South Korean people. Without this apology, the history of the Korean War would end without an acknowledgement from the culprit of invasion and manslaughter, allowing the North to evade from its historical responsibility as the instigator of the war. The Korean War’s history would only remain to perpetuate more historical controversies like the Japanese occupation history of Korea.
South Korea had already undergone a round of heated debates that was instigated by Moon’s diplomatic and special security advisor Moon Jung-in until the president intervened. His advisor published an article in Foreign Affairs last month arguing that there will be no grounds for US forces to remain in South Korea should a peace treaty be signed with the North. South Korean society was divided over the legal ground of such consequences.
China is not ready to lose North Korea yet and wants to keep it under its wings as long as possible before an effective alternative becomes readily available. At this stage, however, Pyongyang wants to keep a distance with Beijing as long as it can continue to ride the high tide.
However, the gist of the matter is the North’s controversial position on the US military presence in the South. As mentioned above, Kim reiteration was in line with his forefathers on his willingness to accept it for a peace that will guarantee the security of his regime. The controversy arises from North Korea’s precondition for the peace treaty that was officially made known at the last Four-party talks in 1999. Before and after the talks, the North has not shied away a bit with an additional prerequisite that requires the abrogation of South Korea-US alliance treaty.
President Moon’s intervention only backfired, stirring more debates than calming them down. His attempt to disconnect the linkage between the peace treaty and the status of US forces in South Korea only highlighted his security advisor’s claim. President Moon sees the two issues as disconnected as the US forces’ future status is a matter of the US-South Korea alliance. He further went on to claim that US forces will continue to remain in South Korea even after the peace treaty, only to give rise to the Two Moon juncture.
Since the US forces’ future status in South Korea is part of the US-South Korea alliance and the alliance is the requisite to the conclusion of the peace treaty, both Moons are making an implicit concession to the North’s preconditions. All these questions associated with the peace treaty are mutually bound with each other and are inseparable. It is a chicken-or-egg question. The peace treaty means the end of the alliance. Some can make a counterargument that a nation hostile of the US can survive once a diplomatic relationship is established with the US. However, it does not mean this nation will be free from American military intervention or even attacks.
The last controversy was underscored by the fact that the Declaration proved to be disinterested in denuclearization. Unlike the pre-summit assertion by the two Moons, this was obvious by where it was stated — in the last article of the last part of the Declaration. It showed a lack of interest from both Koreas as it went on with a simple statement that they acknowledged that it was a common goal to achieve a nuclear-free Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization. Advisor Moon before the summit said the summit would be a success if denuclearization was agreed and documented. He further went on to be specific about the principle being part of a package deal and that implementation would be incremental. No such agreement was apparently made, raising the question about the sincerity of Moon’s government on the denuclearization of North Korea.
Kim’s Other Plan: China Insurance Policy
Upon his return from the summit, President Moon could not hide his joy and pleasure of meeting his northern counterpart. His approval rate skyrocketed to a record-breaking 80 percent. Riding on the high tide of approval, he and his aides are bombarding the nation with future cooperation plans with the North, ranging from sports events to family reunions, from connecting railroads to highways, and from the possibility of resuming the Kaesung Industrial Complex to humanitarian aid and economic assistance. His first measure was dissolving and banning of all propaganda against North Korea, including the mega-sized speakers along the DMZ and the balloons filled with propaganda leaflets and goodies by North Korean defector groups in South Korea.
In the meantime, Kim resumed his strategic insurance building with China, including receiving China’s foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Pyongyang on May 2. It was the first time a Chinese foreign minister had visited North Korea in 11 years. From this visit to the inter-Korean summit, North Korea was actively engaged in high-level contacts in China. While North Korea’s foreign minister visited on April 3 and the director of Labor Party’s International Liaison Office (ILO) on April 5, the Chinese ILO director was received in Pyongyang on April 11.
Kim’s rapprochement with China was shrewd. After a 7 year-hiatus of high-level visits to China, Kim accepted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s invitation for a visit. It was a highly strategically calculated move by Kim. Kim realized that his international profile had been enhanced by international calls for engagement, and he responded based on the realization that his positive response could result in stronger leverage against China. As a socialist country, his priority for overseas engagement lay with China. However, he could not materialize it with less leverage after purging his uncle, a renowned pro-China figure in North Korea and before consolidating his leadership.
Constant international calls for engagement with Kim and his acceptance in return compelled Beijing to be wary and anxious about its position on the Korean peninsula. Xi’s words in greeting Kim last month in Beijing reflected his nation’s wariness and anxiety. China became agitated about three possible scenarios as a result of Pyongyang’s proactive diplomatic endeavors. One is North Korea becoming independent of China by US recognition of the North’s nuclear status and sovereignty, with its nuclear stockpile kept intact. The second is China inadvertently losing North Korea to the waves as a result of its perpetual engagement with the outside world. The last is China losing the North as a result of the denuclearization process which it has long deferred to the US and North Korea while excluding itself.
In his welcoming remarks, Xi iterated first on the solidarity of the bilateral relationship. He then went on to make it clear to North Korea that the two countries could not afford to forget the original resolution of the relationship, and that they must make “new” contributions to the peace and stability of the Northeast Asian region. Xi’s remarks can be read as a kind reminder as well as grave concerns on Kim’s unilateral diplomatic endeavors towards South Korea and the United States while seemingly bypassing China in the eyes of Beijing.
Kim in turn responded with words of comfort that sounded as if he had already known Xi’s anxiety. He confirmed his understanding on the original resolution of the bilateral relationship by saying that he felt obligated to make a timely report to Xi in midst of all the rapid and dynamic developments around the Korean peninsula. Kim certainly appeared to be fully aware of what Xi wanted to hear.
Following his visit to Beijing, Kim apparently reshuffled his State Council members as well as Party Politburo members. Last month, just before the inter-Korean summit, he promoted two figures to the positions. One was Kim Jong-gak and the other Tae Jong-su. Both were formerly his father’s men who had accumulated much China diplomatic experience during Kim Jong-il’s tenure. They hardly travelled to China with him, however. They mostly accompanied him hosting Chinese delegations. They also worked together with the current North Korean Ambassador to China in the same period, Ji Jae-ryong.
The re-hiring of these two former veterans of China diplomacy on Kim’s part is an obvious indicator of his China insurance policy. Should his upcoming summit with his American counterpart fail to produce any substantive outcome, Kim is ready to fall back on China once again, with readily available manpower. His China relations will be basically handled by a squadron of five who all have had extensive diplomatic experience with China under his father’s leadership. They are the Chair of the Supreme People’s Congress Kim Yong-nam, Cabinet Premier Park Bong-ju, Politburo member Ro Du-chul, Kim Jong-gak, Tae Jong-su, and Ji anchoring in Beijing.
The ball is now in Beijing’s court. China is not ready to lose North Korea yet and wants to keep it under its wings as long as possible before an effective alternative becomes readily available. At this stage, however, Pyongyang wants to keep a distance with Beijing as long as it can continue to ride the high tide. Should the dialogue with the US fall back to square one, North Korea can always rekindle its comradeship with China and reconcile for alliance reasons, while South Korea’s hasty future plans may all turn into bubbles.