First on April 27, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries. A highly anticipated historic moment, and the third inter-Korea summit since open fighting ceased between the two nations in 1953, this was widely considered successful and produced a joint statement, the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, which declared that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula,” and that “a new era of peace has begun.”
Affirming the “common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” and setting short-term goals to accelerate the peace process, it brought much enthusiasm from observers over the prospect of future talks.
Following escalating tension the previous month, the cordiality of the Moon-Kim summit conveyed an air of positivity and hope for future stability and peace on the Peninsula. When US President Donald Trump and Kim agreed to meet on June 12 in Singapore, many experts looked ahead to a deal that would solve the nuclear crisis in the Peninsula once and for all.
But it was short-lived. Days later, relations plunged when North Korea canceled a scheduled follow-up meeting with South Korea in what the North characterized as a protest against the resumption of joint military exercises between South Korea and the US. Moreover, when US National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested that the US should adopt the “Libya model” of denuclearization (which many link to the overthrow and brutal death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi), Pyongyang balked at the suggestion and warned it would reconsider meeting the US President.
In an uncharacteristic move, Trump walked back the comments saying he would not seek the “Libya model” and that North Korea would have “protections” if a deal was made. Then on May 24 he abruptly canceled his meeting with Kim, citing Pyongyang’s “hostility.” Hopes for peace seemed dashed.
For skeptics the development only reinforced the view that the new round of talks would be merely the latest in a series of talks and agreements that ultimately failed to make a breakthrough.
Some said the Panmunjom Declaration merely mimicked that of the two previous inter-Korea summits. One was held between South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il of North Korea in 2000, and another between Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. Both failed to achieve lasting results.
But despite these ominous signs the fundamental factors that had led the leaders to consider meeting in the first place have not changed. While Trump has said he won’t meet Kim Jong-un on June 12, there are still reasons for optimism.
A key factor that has given momentum to the recent talks between North Korea and South Korea has been the unique approach adopted by Kim Jong-un. Compared with the conservatism of his father Kim Jong-il, Kim the younger has displayed a more proactive approach to foreign policy.
He raised the stakes by mounting nuclear tests and missile launches. Then in March he sent a surprise invitation to Trump to meet via a South Korean official, and suggested he would like to talk about denuclearization. It was an extraordinary development.
Kim the younger appears more audacious than his father. After Roh Moo-hyun proposed a meeting with Kim Jong-il in 2005, the summit was delayed until 2007 amid Pyongyang’s concerns about the location.
Kim Jong-un has shown flexibility on where to meet his South Korean and American counterparts. During his meeting with Moon he said he would like to visit Seoul, something that had previously been unthinkable for a North Korean leader.
According to Zheng Jiyong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, Kim’s approach stems from a fundamental change in his strategic priorities.
Zhang’s view is shared by Kim Byung-yeon, an economist and North Korea expert at Seoul National University. Kim Byung-yeon pointed to a five-year economic development plan released by the North Korean leader in July 2017, and his April 20 reiteration that his nation would prioritize economic development, raise living standards and nurture a favorable international environment.
“Kim’s primary focus is on economic development, which is now the center of his foreign policy,” Kim Byung-yeon told NewsChina.
Despite Kim Jong-un’s threats to pull out of meeting Trump, his views on the shift in North Korea’s priorities likely remain the same. This is precisely why Kim Jong-un changed his rhetoric immediately after Trump’s letter in which he said he was cancelling the meeting, saying that North Korea is ready to talk “at any time, in any form.”