The sight of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walking across the formal dividing line in Panmunjom to greet President Moon Jae-in amazed the tension-weary South Korean public. After a long day of talks, the summit produced the Panmunjeom Declaration in which both leaders pledged to end the Korean War by the end of this year and rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. The two leaders pledged to work together to implement agreements from earlier inter-Korean summits that did not come to fruition.
The pledge to work toward a peace treaty and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula were important steps forward and helped to define the issues to be discussed at the upcoming summit between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. The language of Declaration was somewhat vague, which led critics to suggest that the summit was high on theater and low on substance. The South Korean public was overwhelmingly positive about the summit and had high hopes for the emergence of a lasting peace and eventual reunification of the divided nation.
The summit also clarified the process to achieve its goals. Moon Jae-in will visit Pyongyang in the fall of this year and the two leaders agreed to talk regularly about important issues. The US and China will be involved in the peace process in four-party talks. The emphasis on talks, some of which will include the two most influential foreign powers in Korean affairs, is important because it keeps avenues for discussion open to handle the complex details of a peace treaty and denuclearization.
For all the progress, several challenges remain. One is the timeline. In the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim, the US will push for quick denuclearization, while North Korea will push for a slower process that allows for access to the world economy during the process of denuclearization. Neither side trusts each other so reaching agreement on the timeline of denuclearization will test the skills of the negotiators.
The timeline also includes the political calendar. Moon Jae-in has four years left in his term and cannot be re-elected. Donald Trump as a little more than 2 1/2 years left in his term and can be re-elected. Kim Jong-un, more than 30 years younger than the other two, faces no term limits. Kim knows that he will outlive his negotiating partners, so he will push for what he can get from Moon and Trump now and may try to go slower on what he can give to each man. This gives him subtle leverage in the negotiations.
Another challenge is credit for the narrative. As his Tweets show, Donald Trump wants to take credit for the good news and he desperately wants to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The strong economy and good news from Korea has helped push his approval numbers up recently. He needs to keep that momentum to help the Republicans retain control of Congress in the November midterm elections and to win re-election in 2020.
The problem for Trump is that Kim Jong-un also wants to take credit for the good news to save face for denuclearization. He needs to present economic development as a gift to the people from a benevolent ruler. Moon Jae-in, by contrast, does not need to be at the center of good news because he has already gained credit for using the PyeongChang Olympics to change the narrative from war to peace.
The biggest challenge of all is agreeing on the details of verifying denuclearization. Denuclearization is expensive, and North Korea will want it to pay off, particularly now that Kim Jong-un has promised economic development. Denuclearization will require intrusive international inspections and an unimaginable level of transparency. At every turn, requests for transparency and responses to them will be greeted by suspicion given the underlying level of distrust.
President Moon holds the key to dealing with these challenges because he has the highest level of trust among the three leaders. At home, his approval rating has stayed over 70 percent most of his first year in office. Despite early friction, he has earned President Trump’s trust, and Kim Jong-un trusts him more than he trusts Trump. He has kept a clear focus on the big picture of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, two keywords that were at the center of the Panmunjom Declaration. As negotiations begin to focus on details, his vision of peace and prosperity will be critical to keeping others focused on the big picture over egos and the petty Tweets that they produce.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.