Sunday’s trilateral meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae In made for compelling viewing, the latest chapter in Korean peninsula summit diplomacy.
Indeed, such a meeting would have been unthinkable only 18 months ago. It was an unprecedented event – the leaders of the US, South Korea and North Korea meeting together, especially in the DMZ.
Critics have argued, however, that the meeting was merely a heavily manicured photo-op. While heavy on symbolism, it covered nothing substantive and signalled only that the parties are willing to restart the negotiating process.
A couple of major questions remain unanswered. First, what is the ultimate purpose of negotiations? Are the US, North Korea and South Korea talking about the same thing when they talk about “denuclearisation”?
And is the endgame of negotiations ultimately about denuclearisation, or is it about reaching a permanent peace settlement to formally end the Korean War?
Symbolism vs substance
Given the abrupt failure of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February, a symbolic photo-op at the DMZ is an encouraging sign that the parties are still interested in talking.
These kinds of symbolic gestures are the foundation upon which negotiations can move forward, given that all parties are starting from a place of mutual mistrust. Without this kind of patient state-to-state relationship building, the US and North Korea will never reach a stage where more substantive issues can be discussed.
The symbolism is also important in signalling intent to the public in all three countries. For the US and South Korea, building domestic support for engagement is key to the ultimate ratification of any future agreement.
We also need to place the DMZ meeting in the proper context. There are several parallel games at play in which the US, North Korea and South Korea have diverging interests.
The first of these games revolves around the US demand of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation”, or CVID, which has formed the basis of US policy on North Korea for successive administrations since 2002.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program represents a threat to America’s nuclear weapons supremacy – both in and of itself, and as an example to other countries that might seek to develop their own nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear-armed North Korea also demonstrates the diminished authority of the US as a regional and global power.
We see the CVID game at play in the rhetorical commitment of the US government to denuclearising the DPRK, despite the evidence that CVID has thus far failed, and in the pushback against Trump for his perceived willingness to sacrifice this aim in order to reach a deal with Kim.
The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea, meanwhile, involves the full relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all nuclear powers, including the US.
With this in mind, the Kim government is committing to a negotiating process from which it can obtain sweeteners, not an end goal.
This leads into the second game at play: Kim’s quest to modernise the North Korean economy, which is important to the legitimacy and longevity of his government. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program was developed as a security umbrella under which the government can move forward with economic modernisation, while minimising the risk of state collapse.
As such, the North Koreans are likely to seek an easing of economic sanctions and economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy in negotiations with the US.
One way to achieve these objectives is by stretching the negotiating process out for as long as possible – this allows the North Koreans to secure incentives for small concessions over a longer-term, incremental negotiating process.
The race to develop the North
The third game relates to the potential opening of North Korea to foreign investment. Kim’s economic modernisation drive means that extensive opportunities for infrastructure development will emerge for foreign investors when the political climate eventually warms sufficiently.
The contours of a contest to develop North Korea are beginning to coalesce, with South Korean, Chinese and Russian companies jockeying for position to develop this relatively untapped space.
Moon, for one, sees this engagement strategy as part of South Korea’s broader push to integrate northeast Asia through economic and infrastructure linkages, such as gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of this emerged in last year’s Panmunjom Declaration, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ.
A peace settlement, or at least a negotiating process towards that end, is the magic key that could unlock possibilities for infrastructure development in North Korea. This would remove economic sanctions as an obstacle to investment and reduce the political and economic risk for investors.
Trump’s unique diplomatic style
Finally, the fourth game relates to Trump himself. His businesslike approach to diplomacy and penchant for policy-by-Twitter are far removed from longstanding US diplomatic practices, in both style and substance.
Trump’s desire to reach an agreement with Kim has brought him to the brink of relinquishing the US demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” by the North.
While one could argue, as I have, that CVID has long been a fantasy anyway, Trump’s apparent willingness to make concessions on this front puts him at odds with many in his administration and within the broader US foreign policy establishment.
This may explain one notable absentee from Trump’s entourage in South Korea – National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was dispatched to Mongolia instead. Bolton’s hardline stance on North Korea is well known, so his absence was significant. In February, the North Korean media criticised Bolton for trying to be a spoiler in the negotiations in Hanoi.
More work to be done
Engagement with the North is hugely preferable to the uneasy status quo on the Korean peninsula that carries with it a heightened risk of conflict escalation. However, for this engagement to continue, the parties need an agreed purpose to keep negotiations moving forward.
The DMZ leaders’ meeting shows just how far apart the interests of the US, South Korea and North Korea are, and how much work needs to be done to build trust and align the parties to a basic common goal.
Handshakes and symbolism only go so far. Eventually, the parties will need to work towards something more concrete for the process to be sustained.