Five Things to Look for in the Korea Summit

The summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 is the first such formal event in eleven years.  Much has changed, but much is still the same.  Long-standing dynamics will be at play. 

Here are five interesting angles to watch.

China.  China will be generally pleased that the summit is taking place.  China does not want North Korea to be engaged in hostile, destabilizing acts that drive South Korea closer to the United States and make it a necessity for Seoul to align with Tokyo. 

Kim’s announced long-range missile and nuclear device testing freeze, along with his change in formal policy from military first to economic growth first, supports Beijing’s desire to make it less acceptable for South Korea to cooperate with the US military in the region. 

Look for China to validate dialogue and maybe even offer eventual post-sanction investment in North Korea’s new economic development zones.

Japan.   Japan is nervous.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unlikely to have been assuaged by US President Donald J. Trump’s seemingly unconditional endorsement of North-South peace talks.

North Korea has notably not agreed to include medium-range ballistic missiles in its freeze announcement. Japan is within range of North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missiles. Tokyo will be watching closely for warming intra-Korean dynamics, and whether that warming gives North Korea (and by extension China) a forum to drive a wedge in South Korean-Japanese relations. 

Even if he is more muted in international comments, look for Abe to again say to Japanese media that the current policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea must remain in place and that the fate of kidnapped Japanese persons by North Korea be resolved. 

The United States.  The United States and South Korea have historically pulled each other back when one or the other leans too aggressively or accommodatively toward the North.  This creates friction but diplomats from both countries tend to work through these periods and get bilateral relations back in sync.

It is unclear if South Korea surprised the United States with its decision to go forward with bilateral peace talks with the North, but South Korea sure seemed surprised by Trump’s threat to totally destroy North Korea if it did not address US (but not South Korean) security concerns.  Moon stated at that time that his country reserves the right to decide if war will be waged on the Korean Peninsula against the North. 

The United States will want to make sure that Moon maintains denuclearization and long-range delivery systems as an agenda item for North-South talks (even though this means something very different to North Korea than it does to the United States). 

Look for Washington to endorse the outcome of the summit as a positive step in direct, bilateral engagement between the two Koreas even as it keeps an eye open for South Korea going too far on the US troop presence and joint US-South Korea military exercises.

South Korea.   Moon shares the impulses of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.  Kim established South Korea’s “sunshine policy” toward the North by which South Korea would offer inducements to incentivize and lock in good behavior by the North. 

Kim agreed to provide economic assistance to the North, support joint business ventures just over the border in North Korea, and work with the North on the development of South Korean tourist visits to Mount Kumgang located in North Korea. 

Moon is careful not to appear to be too solicitous of the North, but he clearly believes dialogue and incentives are a better path than threat and bluster.  Of course, Moon (like Kim Dae-jung) believes in a strong military deterrent and a high state of readiness.  Kim will want to see North Korea restate its pledges to freeze its strategic weapons programs and engage directly with the South on the permanent establishment of peace on the Peninsula. 

Kim needs these deliverables to justify inducements, recognizing the pledges are reversible.  He also needs these deliverables to set the stage for progress in the probable US-North Korea Summit in May or June. 

Look for South Korea to pursue joint statements of intent to reduce the opportunity for the United States to be overly aggressive in coming meetings. 

North Korea.   Kim Jong-un has already scored a major political and public relations victory.  He appears to have initiated the summit and be the one to reach out to the United States.  He unilaterally announced a freeze on further nuclear and long-range missile testing, the closure of North Korea’s nuclear development facility in Punggye-ri, and a change in national policy from military first to economic development first.  And, of course, he has demonstrated that North Korea is an unrecognized nuclear weapons state likely with the emerging capability to deliver a warhead to the homeland. 

Kim made an important trip to Beijing (his first foreign travel as ruler) and sent North Korean athletes and an official delegation, including his own sister, to the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea. He even got a sitting US president to agree to a face-to-face meeting. 

It does not matter that all these pledges are reversible, cosmetic, and simply lock in Kim’s strategic successes.  Few believe Kim is ready to negotiate away his strategic weapons as they, along with tens of thousands or artillery tubes and rocket launchers capable of annihilating most of Seoul, ensure regime survival.  But Kim does need sanctions relief and foreign assistance.  Lots of it.   Kim will want to see how far superficial concessions will get him.  It has worked many times before for North Korea and may do so again. 

Look for North Korea to agree to vague statements of intent that advance economic opportunities for the North and give China space to push for the easing of sanctions.

Todd Rosenblum is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter @ToddRosenblum1.


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Image: A North Korean flag fluttering atop of a 160-meter tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong is seen through a pair of binoculars at the Tae Sung freedom village inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, on April 24. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)