Don’t Overestimate the Power of Historic Summits
The potential for progress on the Korean Peninsula is real, but the pitfalls are plentiful.
The game of summits has begun.
The meeting last month between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un kicked off a series of summits that could determine the future of the Korean Peninsula.
As the world anticipates the upcoming meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, the Moon-Kim meeting can provide some clues about where the situation is headed and about what might happen when the leaders of the United States and North Korea meet for the first time.
Both North and South Korea clearly wanted to use the inter-Korean summit to convey a sense of historic progress. They built up extensive hype in the run-up to the summit — South Korea even created a website to unveil details of the event, such as images of the meeting room and the banquet menu. Every detail was imbued with symbolism, from the width of the conference table to the sourcing of the dinner beef and noodles. Both sides played to the cameras: As each leader stood on either side of the boundary between the Koreas, Moon reportedly asked Kim when he could visit the North, and Kim responded, “Why don’t you just come over to the North side now?” — and the two stepped over the border. Kim is on a charm offensive, perhaps trying to suggest that North Korea can now be trusted to make good on its promises. For the moment at least, both sides are invested in the appearance of success.
The joint statement contains genuinely good news. In the Panmunjom Declaration, the two sides agreed on a wide range of goals, including working toward a formal end to the Korean War, pursuing denuclearization, and resuming family reunions. While most of the declaration’s promises are not new, the fact that they were all put to paper during a truly historic meeting is no small feat and could be the beginning of positive change.
The North and South developed little understanding of how to meet their goals. Many of the issues Moon and Kim discussed have been on the table before, and previous agreements have not resulted in substantive change. North Korea has promised to stop its nuclear program time and time again, and now North Korea believes it has fully achieved its goal of obtaining a nuclear deterrent. The two countries have promised to not use force against one another before, and previous talks have reaffirmed a commitment to peace on the peninsula.
The ambiguity raises concerns. For instance, what does creating a joint liaison office for the Kaesong region and recommitting to economic development projects from the 2007 inter-Korean summit mean for the international economic pressure campaign? (The Kaesong industrial complex — a joint North-South economic project that mostly employs North Korean workers and made up the largest component of inter-Korean trade — was closed in 2016 to impose economic pressure.) Why was there no explicit agreement to end nuclear or missile testing? The joint declaration is good, but the details — and how they are implemented — are what really matter.
It’s impossible to know what this all means until the upcoming Trump-Kim summit has concluded — and likely not until long after that.
The biggest outstanding question, on which the success of the diplomatic process will likely hinge, centers on language from last month’s declaration: Both sides “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” It’s unclear whether North and South Korea agreed privately on any details about the fate of North Korea’s weapons programs. It’s unclear what North Korea expects in exchange for “denuclearization.” It’s unclear what Trump will accept from the North. And it’s unclear whether or not South Korea and the United States have matching expectations.
Some believe it was a success for the denuclearization language to be included at all and that the nuclear issue is one for the United States and North Korea to handle directly. And perhaps the inter-Korean summit was short on details because the North is saving its big news — a process for the North to give up its weapons, a freeze on nuclear and missiles tests, and other big changes — for the Trump-Kim meeting. But it’s anyone’s guess what happens at that summit: Genuine progress? A “huge” deal that lacks accountability? A failure that leads to military action?
The potential for progress is real, but the pitfalls are plentiful. With no sense as to what the United States is offering in return for its demands, public focus has shifted to the U.S. military presence in South Korea. White House chief of staff John Kelly reportedly had to convince Trump to not withdraw the U.S. military presence from the Korean Peninsula, and there is a report (which the administration denies) that Trump ordered the U.S. Defense Department to develop options for troop withdrawals. What will Trump do if Kim asks him to withdraw U.S. troops? If Kim is genuinely considering giving up his nuclear weapons, perhaps this is the price he expects Trump to pay.
Another pitfall is the widening gap between expectations and the reality of progress. In recent days, news sites have run headlines such as “Kim, Moon Pledge Denuclearization Of Peninsula And End To Korean War”; Trump tweeted, “KOREAN WAR TO END!”; and some, including 18 Republican members of Congress, have even called for Trump to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. And Trump appears focused on the spectacle of the summit — noting an interest in being able to have a “celebration” in the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries — while there’s little sense of the substance to be achieved. To date, the hype is far outpacing the tangible results.
If nothing else, the events of recent weeks confirmed two realities: The United States and South Korea are in the midst of necessary diplomacy with North Korea that could reduce tensions and address the threats it poses, and it is still unclear how any of that progress will happen or the degree to which it is even sustainable.
This week, the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and China will meet to discuss North Korea. On May 22, Trump will meet Moon to confer about next steps. Then Trump is set to meet with Kim. Moon has agreed to visit Pyongyang this fall. All this pageantry and summitry is important and sends signals from the top that all countries involved want genuine progress. And the parties are on a much better path than they were just months ago, when there was regular talk of war. But success comes down to the details, and only a good, verifiable deal with North Korea will hold up to scrutiny. This process will be a marathon, not a sprint. And the games have only just started.
Michael H. Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2013 to 2016, he was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.