The two Koreas had high-level at the border village of Panmunjom on Thursday and agreed to hold an inter-Korean summit talks at the Peace House on the southern side of Panmunjom on April 27. They decided to call the summit the “2018 talks” seemingly with a view to regularizing inter-Korean summits. Unlike the 2000 and 2007 summits whose themes were largely about promoting inter-Korean exchanges and easing tensions, the upcoming talks are characterized as a prelude to the North Korea-U.S. summit over the North’s denuclearization. The results will likely have tremendous impacts on the fate of the peninsula.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to accelerate his external activities ahead of the inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits. It is highly likely that he will visit Russia in late April or early May to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The young leader is also seeking to have a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June. It seems that Kim is trying to break out of a seven-year seclusion in an attempt to win support that would boost his negotiating power in the summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and shake up the entire structure. If Russia and Japan attempt to have a say after China involved itself in the situation, the diplomatic war over the North Korean nuclear issue will become more complicatedly entangled.
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Seoul on Thursday as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy to offer explanations on the results of the North Korea-China summit earlier this week. Kim Jong Un said that Pyongyang’s denuclearization is possible if Seoul and Washington take “progressive and synchronous measures,” indicating that he wants compensations at every step of the process. At a time when the remark has dimmed the prospects for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, the Moon Jae-in administration should make a cool-headed judgment on the accurate wordings and the context delivered by the Chinese envoy, and share it with the United States.
“We’re going to be cautiously optimistic,” a White House spokesperson told reporters Thursday. Seoul’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae also welcomed the North Korea-China summit, saying, “It is very meaningful that Chairman Kim Jong Un clearly expressed his willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and hold a South-North Korea summit and North Korea-U.S. summit at the North-China summit.” Although Kim’s suggestion of a phased denuclearization forewarns a difficult path ahead, Seoul’s reaction is viewed as an intention to carry on the momentum, as he reaffirmed his will to engage in dialogue.
The inter-Korean summit is less than a month away. The Moon administration should clearly show its firm stance that it will not provide the North with any form of compensation or ease sanctions until Pyongyang achieves complete denuclearization. Seoul should persuade Kim to come to the dialogue table on that premise. The entire process must be based on water-tight coordination and information sharing with Washington.
Seoul also needs to have close dialogue with China and Russia. Moscow has so far been defending Pyongyang’s position, proposing a roadmap calling for phased and peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. A North Korea-Russia summit would add another supporter of Kim’s phased denuclearization proposal. That would further dim the possibility of a successful Kim-Trump summit, which is expected to take place in May. Trump has made it clear that there would be no compensation until the North’s complete denuclearization, flatly rejecting the past approach of compensating the North in every step of the denuclearization process.
It is possible that the North Korea-U.S. summit will not take place at all, if Kim insists on phased compensations and if China and Russia back him. The rare opportunity to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue could be blown away, casting the dark clouds of an armed clash on the Korean Peninsula. The April-June period should be made the “golden time” for paving the way for denuclearization, and the inter-Korean summit is the first step toward the goal.