The Korean Summit That Really Matters


On Monday, South Korea’s Catholic Church held an unusual prayer: It prayed for the success of the upcoming inter-Korean summit. The following day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a Buddhist service, also praying for the summit’s success. Clearly, the Moon administration is leaving nothing to chance to ensure that next week’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un redefines Korean geopolitics. Both Moon and, to a lesser extent, Kim have been preparing for this moment for years. This is why the upcoming inter-Korean summit, not the much-discussed summit between Kim and U.S President Donald Trump, is the one that really matters for the future of the peninsula. The two Korean leaders will use their meeting to set the scene for the Trump-Kim meeting. Crucially, South Korea is hoping that the inter-Korean summit will constrain the options available to the United States in any future negotiation, thereby putting engagement, not confrontation, at the forefront of Korean Peninsula affairs.

A Long-Anticipated Summit

Some might be surprised to learn that the leaders of both Koreas have had many years to think about this moment. Moon was in charge of organizing the previous inter-Korean summit between then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in October 2007. He has had over a decade to reflect on about what went well and what went wrong in that meeting. Most notably, Roh offered concessions to Kim Jong-il such as economic cooperation and humanitarian aid without a firm commitment to end military provocations or move towards denuclearization in return. Also, the summit took place towards the end of Roh’s presidency, thus leaving no material time to implement any agreement. In some ways, Moon may even have been preparing for an event like this all his adult life, considering that he was born to North Korean refugees and has long been supportive of inter-Korean rapprochement.

For Pyongyang’s part, it is not difficult to imagine Kim Jong Un in June 2000, though still in his teens, already absorbing the lessons of the first-ever inter-Korean summit between his father, Kim Jong Il, and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

By contrast, Trump probably never seriously entertained the idea of holding a summit with Kim until these past few weeks (though it is true that during the presidential campaign he publicly stated that he would be willing to meet with Kim). And in fact, it was Moon who helped to convince the U.S president to hold the summit. It is safe to assume Kim and Moon will come to the inter-Korean summit hoping to frame Korean Peninsula affairs and the Trump-Kim summit. The Moon government has stated as much.

What the Two Summits Could Bring, and Why It Matters

How do the possible outcomes of the two summits stack up? At first glance, the inducements the United States could offer are more appealing to North Korea. They include normalization of diplomatic relations, a peace treaty, the progressive removal of sanctions, oil transfers, and access to funding from international institutions such as the World Bank. These are the most important carrots the United States has offered in previous agreements with North Korea or otherwise floated over the years. Diplomatic relations and a peace treaty are the holy grail for Pyongyang. In exchange, the United States will demand complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.

As for the inter-Korean summit, a hotline directly connecting the leaders of the two countries is to be set up even before they meet. This is a real breakthrough, for it will allow Moon and Kim to be in direct contact whenever necessary. It is a significant confidence-building measure, never tried on the Korean Peninsula before. On top of that, the Moon administration also stated that it wants this or future summits to result in a peace treaty including the two Koreas, the United States, and China. This is an ambitious goal, given that the 1953 armistice that stopped Korean War hostilities has been in place for 65 years with no peace treaty. Previous South Korean leaders have sought a treaty, but all have failed so far. It signals that Seoul seeks to genuinely reshape the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula.

More realistically, the inter-Korean summit will also likely result in the announcement of several projects aimed at bringing the two nations’ economies closer together. This could include the reopening of the hugely symbolic Kaesong Industrial Complex, which Moon pledged to do even before his election. The Moon administration also wants to build pipelines, rail and road links, and other projects connecting South Korea with China and Russia through North Korea. This is a long-held dream for many South Koreans, who see their country as surrounded by water on three sides and North Korea on the fourth. We can also expect agreement to or at least discussion of confidence-building measures such as a joint fishing area around the Northern Limit Line to the west of the Korean Peninsula, increased humanitarian aid to North Korea, and the resumption of inter-Korean family reunions – as per the 2007 inter-Korean agreement.

So why are the possible outcomes of the inter-Korean summit more important than the one that would follow between Kim and Trump? Beyond the obvious reason that the meeting is going forward in a few days, while the Trump-Kim summit remains tentative and shrouded in conflicting reports, it is also important to look at the commitment of the parties involved. Fairly or unfairly, the United States has gained a reputation for not following through on its agreements. Reportedly, a North Korean delegation that recently met with U.S. and South Korean officials expressed concern that that Trump would not even follow through with his promise to hold a summit with Kim. The Trump administration is publicly mulling withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, and at the very least will demand its renegotiation. Similarly, a decade after the George W. Bush administration helped pressure Libya to renounce possession of its WMD programs, the Obama administration helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Presumably, Pyongyang is similarly worried about Washington sticking to any commitment it might make when and if the U.S.-North Korea summit goes ahead. From a North Korean perspective, there is the risk that the outcome of the summit might not matter given that the United States could change its terms in the future.

On the other hand, South Korea will likely implement any agreement reached. And crucially, agreement will not be contingent on full North Korean denuclearization first. Indeed, one of the key reasons Moon wants to hold a summit with Kim so early in his presidency is to have sufficient time to see any agreement through. The last inter-Korean summit came when Roh was a lame duck president. The agreement he signed with Kim Jong-il was dead in the water as soon as the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, won the presidency only two months later. Statements from several Moon administration officials, most recently by Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon, have made it clear that the South Korean president wants to reach an agreement that will be hard for his predecessors to reverse. Unlike the United States, improvement in inter-Korean relations is the key foreign policy issue for South Korea, particularly for Moon’s administration. Expect engagement to continue even if U.S.-North Korea tensions increase again.

Furthermore, it is notable that Moon asked Kim to meet in Panmunjom. This is a neutral venue, which means that neither Korean leader loses face by attending. This matters more than it seems, especially if Panjunjom remains the venue for future summits. It will be easier to host more top-level inter-Korean meetings in the future by using a venue that both Koreas are comfortable with. Moon is aware that the two previous liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh, were criticized for visiting Pyongyang for their respective inter-Korean summits in spite of North Korean provocations. This gave the impression that the South Korean leader was bowing to his Northern counterpart. Moon wants to avoid this, especially since most conservatives in South Korea have been positive about the recent engagement drive with Pyongyang so far.

In contrast, there is no indication that the Trump-Kim summit will lead to regular meetings between both leaders. Nor should it. The president has many issues on his plate, and the current administration still lacks the necessary experience to negotiate what will be a complex agreement. Moreover, any potential breakthrough could be derailed if North Korea and the United States fail to reach an agreement on the meaning of denuclearization. And of course, there is no certainty that the summit will happen at all.

The South Korean president also has many issues to deal with, but North Korea is at the very top of this list. Given Moon’s commitment to better inter-Korean relations and the fact that he spent three days with Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, less than two months ago, it is reasonable to expect the leaders of the two Koreas and their closest advisors to hold regular meetings in the coming months and years. After all, Moon’s hosting of Kim Yo-jong took place even while discussions of a ‘bloody nose’ strike on North Korea had yet to fade away. These are promising signs that regular high-level inter-Korean exchanges are here to stay, suggesting that the outcome of the inter-Korean summit will have more staying power and more influence over the peninsula’s future.

The upcoming summit is also significant for what has not happened yet. Seoul has refrained from offering aid and other economic concessions to Pyongyang prior to the summit itself. The reason this matters is that although candidate Moon was elected on a platform including the resumption of economic engagement with North Korea, he has since taken a cue from two of his conservative predecessors, Lee and Park Geun-hye, and linked economic transfers to North Korea to an improvement in relations. Many South Koreas are generally supportive of this approach, which has helped Moon avoid one of the main criticisms of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ pursued by Kim Dae-jung and Roh – that South Korea provided the North with an economic lifeline in return for relatively small concessions such as a limited number of family reunions and irregular missile test moratoriums. Ultimately, Moon believes the best way to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the long run is to support the economic development of North Korea. This is a popular idea among liberal South Korean circles.

On the other side of the 38th parallel, Pyongyang has followed the so-called byungjin line since Kim took power in 2011. This prioritizes economic reform and growth as much as the development of a nuclear deterrent. The regime is explicitly supporting the marketization of the North Korean economy. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim opening new amenities or visiting a market. As North Korean refugees and visitors to the country attest, the jangmadang, or markets, that have spread throughout the country have changed the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Many of them now live in a de-facto market economy, with access to a wide range of clothes, services, amenities, and so forth. The message is clear: Economic development is top of the regime’s agenda. The Kim regime would find it very difficult to reverse these grassroots-led changes without domestic backlash.

This is in sharp contrast to the songun or ‘military-first’ line followed by Kim’s father, which put the North Korean army at the center of the country’s affairs, including its economy. The upcoming summit is the first with a North Korean leader who believes in economic reform. It will gauge the extent to which Kim might be willing to negotiate its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the investment and technical expertise that North Korea’s economy so badly needs to make economic reform a success. As Moon’s close advisor Moon Chung-in states, Kim wants economic growth as a way to boost his legitimacy and prolong his leadership.

The inter-Korean summit is also more important than the U.S.-North Korea summit for a more prosaic reason: It comes first. It will therefore shape the meeting between Trump and Kim, assuming that takes place at all. If next week’s summit goes well, the tentative meeting between Washington and Pyongyang will be preceded by weeks of positive news about engagement coming out of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea will also most likely continue its unofficial moratorium on missile and nuclear tests dating back to last November. More optimistically, implementation of some of the agreements reached during the first summit might already be underway. By the time of the Trump-Kim summit, there could be tremendous pressure on Washington not to derail improving inter-Korean relations. This would show Moon’s ability to diplomatically maneuver both countries, as he has done in recent months.

Conversely, a poor inter-Korean summit with a weak agreement will dampen the current positive mood towards engagement. South Korean conservatives are likely to criticize Moon for being naïve. Trump administration officials already wary of engagement, such as newly-appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton, would probably push for the current tentative rapprochement to be replaced by stronger sanctions and greater military pressure. The Trump-Kim summit might be cancelled altogether. As has been noted, however, Seoul is pulling all levers to make the inter-Korean summit a success, so this outcome is unlikely.

Perhaps most importantly, the inter-Korean summit has firmly put Seoul – and Moon in particular – in the driver’s seat of Korean Peninsula affairs. Moon was the one regularly reaching out to Kim since he became president. He has also been working hard to make U.S.-North Korea talks happen. He has shown his ability to control the narrative and the diplomatic trajectory, and the inter-Korean summit is likely to be no exception. And Moon is likely to continue to press ahead, making cooperation the key feature of inter-Korean relations. Compared to this intense and long-awaited diplomatic push, the U.S. summit seems secondary at best.


Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London.

Image: Flickr