North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left his historic Singapore summit with US President Donald Trump last month with a massive political victory in hand, but questions remain how this will help his isolated country in pragmatic terms.
A Japanese newspaper reported Sunday that Kim has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in lifting the sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. But even if sanctions are lifted, will this be enough to improve the standard of living for North Korea’s impoverished citizens?
In recent years, Pyongyang has focused on twin policy objectives: achieving global political legitimacy, and embarking on a program of economic modernisation. The Singapore summit has arguably helped in reaching the first objective. North Korea will now be looking to achieve the second.
Compared to neighbouring China and South Korea, North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of expansion and modernisation. For decades, the government emphasised investment in heavy industry and weapons programs, allowing its roads, ports, rail lines and airports to fall into disrepair. North Korea’s energy, water and communications systems lag behind the rest of the world, as well.
When Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Moon said he would like to travel through North Korea to climb Mt. Paektu – a site of great importance in Korean folklore. Kim responded with a revealing admission that he would be “embarrassed” by his country’s railways.
Kim also told Moon how the North Korean athletes who took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were impressed by the South’s high-speed rail network. This was seen by many as a likely signal that North Korea was motivated to bring its own rail network – and the rest of its infrastructure – into the 21st century.
And South Korea evidently wants to help. At the summit between the two leaders, Moon gave Kim a USB drive that laid out a vision for connecting the two Koreas through new infrastructure projects and special economic zones.
At the heart of Moon’s plan would be a US$35 billion upgrade of North Korea’s rail network, including high-speed rail lines connecting Seoul, Pyongyang and other industrial zones and a retrofit of other rail lines in the North.
Moon’s proposal is shrewd. The rail lines would also connect North Korea to its northern neighbours, China and Russia, and ultimately serve as a vital link between the entire Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia and Europe.
More importantly, the South Korean proposal goes well beyond infrastructure. It would be a catalyst for unlocking the potential of the North’s untapped mineral reserves, which have been valued at somewhere between US$6-10 trillion.
These reserves consist of iron, gold, copper and graphite, as well as large amounts of rare earth deposits needed for production of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets made in the South. There are also unconfirmed reports of oil and gas deposits in North Korean waters.
However, modernising North Korea’s neglected infrastructure won’t come cheaply. The cost is estimated at several trillion dollars , similar to what West Germany spent to develop the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The technical know-how and capacities of North Korea’s labour forces will also pose huge challenges.
Already, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and other corporations provide training for the North Koreans they’ve employed in special economic zones along the border. These giants are well-placed to rebuild the North’s deteriorating infrastructure, but would need to invest much more time and money to train the local workforce.
Whether the North accepts the South’s help remains to be seen. This could prove to be a major stumbling block.
Of course, China could step in and play a major role. The country has built the world’s longest high-speed rail network, extending some 22,000kms, in a remarkably short span of time.
Beijing has strategic interests in developing the North’s rail network, as well. A future inter-Korean railway could serve as an extension of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure development initiative linking China with key markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Before any progress can be made on grand plans like these, North and South Korea need to take an important first step and reopen the rail links and roads between the countries. The two neighbours agreed in June to work towards that goal, but any material progress will need to wait until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted.
The two Koreas agreed to start limited cross-border rail service to an industrial zone just over the North Korean border in 2007, but the fraught relationship between the two countries soon brought the initiative to a halt.
This time around, progress will depend on the cooperation of the North Korean leader, who has been reluctant to accept help in the past, but might be persuaded to do so now with his country’s future in the balance.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will meet on Tuesday for their highly anticipated summit in Singapore. For the summit to be productive, the negotiations need to converge on a lowest-common-denominator shared interest that both parties can agree on.
We saw this in the inter-Korean summit, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un settled on easy-win confidence-building measures as the starting point for more substantive negotiations.
Given the extreme and long-standing trust deficit between the US and DPRK, it is not clear where Trump and Kim might find this lowest common denominator to unlock a confidence-building pathway. Because of that, this summit is shaping as compelling viewing as a spectacle, and perplexing in its ambiguous purpose.
North Korea is not committed to denuclearisation as the concept has been understood by the Trump administration. The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea implies the full simultaneous nuclear weapons relinquishment by all nuclear powers, including the United States.
Here, North Korea can speak the language of denuclearisation without ever having to commit to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID).
The problem with Trump’s insistence on CVID is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point for a discussion with North Korea on those terms. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program, because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway, and domestic political legitimacy.
The only real concession of value that Washington has to offer Kim is a formal treaty to conclude the Korean War. Indeed, Trump has hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities is a possibility (though he stopped short of offering a formal peace treaty).
What does North Korea have to offer the United States, short of denuclearisation? We have seen gestures of goodwill in the lead-up to the summit. North Korea’s recently demolished tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site are a gesture of goodwill to Washington, offering up a now-obsolete facility.
This echoes a similar concession by Pyongyang in 2008, when it demolished the cooling tower of the obsolete reactor at Yongbyon. Negotiations may settle on a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to other smaller security-related confidence-building measures.
The North released three American citizens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a recent visit to Pyongyang. The Americans had been detained in the DPRK on accusations of espionage.
And in a test of Thomas Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek theory that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants would ever go to war, Kim may even offer to have a McDonald’s open a restaurant in Pyongyang.
Kim may also court Trump with flattery, as many other world leaders have done to productive effect.
Both parties have strengths and weaknesses in their bargaining positions. North Korea has (or is close enough to) a deployable nuclear weapons capability. Kim appears enthusiastic to talk now with the Americans, because in nuclear weapons his government has the strategic leverage it needs. North Korea wants to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States, but on Pyongyang’s terms.
While it is highly unlikely that Kim begged Trump to reconvene the summit “on hands and knees,” as Rudy Giuliani has suggested, North Korea does have some incentive to make concessions.
Kim’s ambitions of developing the North Korean economy under the Byungjin model are constrained by the UN Security Council and bilateral American sanctions regimes.
While North Korea has demonstrated an ability to persevere in spite of sanctions, and even grow some niche sectors of its economy (such as the mining sector), Kim’s vision for economic development ultimately requires strategic connections with international development partners.
The explicit inclusion of references to transportation infrastructure linkages with South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration from April’s inter-Korean summit illustrates this point.
Similarly, there are limitations on American action that constrain its negotiating options – most notably, the strategic vulnerability of Seoul to North Korean bombardment.
The absence of a substantive relationship between the US and North Korea also limits Washington’s economic and diplomatic leverage. Rightly or wrongly, the US has dealt itself out of direct influence over North Korea through its various policies of strategic isolation and maximum pressure. It is ironic that US officials have consistently urged China to do more to pressure North Korea and uphold the integrity of the sanctions regime, when it has been economic interactions between the DPRK and China that have had the most demonstrable impact on politics in Pyongyang.
However, the clear power disparity between the US and DPRK is often overlooked. As the more powerful party with overwhelming nuclear superiority and clear capacity to deter any North Korean nuclear threat, the US does have capacity to reset the terms of the relationship by reducing the heat in negotiations.
Trump can do this by changing the focus of the negotiations. If it insists on CVID to the bitter end, the Trump administration will blow an opportunity to meaningfully change the strategic goalposts on the Korean Peninsula by focusing on the wrong prize.
With such ambiguity over potential outcomes from the summit, other regional players are lobbying hard around the edges to represent their interests.
South Korea’s diplomatic efforts in 2018 have been geared to guiding the US into a more conciliatory position with North Korea. This would make it politically safer for Trump to negotiate for an agreement with Pyongyang, knowing there are influential American officials in Trump’s ear counselling for war.
Moon Jae-in has been busy maintaining the diplomatic momentum generated by the inter-Korean summit, from his tactical ego-stroking comments about Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize to visiting Washington to lobby the president directly.
Moon has even flagged that he may travel to Singapore for the summit, knowing South Korea is best positioned to facilitate confidence-building with the DPRK.
Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been engaging in shuttle diplomacy, urging Trump to follow a tougher line. North Korea’s WMD and missile threat to Japan, and resolution of the abductee issue, are core interests of the Abe administration.
Indeed, an adversarial North Korea better suits Abe’s domestic agenda for Japanese strategic “normalisation”, which would be undercut by rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.
It is also interesting to see that former NBA star Dennis Rodman may be an attendee at the summit. While Rodman has been lampooned in some quarters for his sports diplomacy and relationship with Kim Jong-un, he nonetheless has a level of access to and a unique rapport with the North Korean leader that is largely unmatched by anyone else within the American foreign policy establishment.
As an “ambassador of goodwill”, Rodman could help the parties find that common interest.
Also significant is the non-invitation of US National Security Advisor John Bolton. His recent comments comparing North Korea to Libya appear to be a deliberate attempt to undercut the State Department’s groundwork with Pyongyang over the past few months.
American hawks such as Bolton view any kind of engagement with North Korea as a “loss” or “appeasement” — one of the most juvenile and misapplied terms in the international relations lexicon.
They are well aware of the difficulty of getting any negotiated deal ratified in a Republican-majority Congress (recalling the fate of the Agreed Framework). The irony is a deal is more likely to stick in the US if it is owned by a Republican president.
My view is that North Korea can be deterred as a nuclear power, and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War represents the best pathway to managing regional security and ensuring the safety of the people who live in the region.
It is under the umbrella of a formalised peace regime that human rights concerns within North Korea are more likely to be addressed, coupled with continued pressure from international human rights advocates.
Engagement and interaction is the best vehicle for this, based on an understanding of inter-relationships of complex material, financial and ecological flows and networks that are shaping social change processes within the DPRK.
Summits are symbols that act as markers in a much broader process of relationship-building. They are based on confidence-building measures and clear, achievable implementation steps. Through such a process, the parties could gradually evolve the level of trust necessary to progress to subsequent steps on the negotiation pathway.
It is unclear in the build-up to this unprecedented summit if the participants will be able to hack away the thicket of decades of mistrust and hostility to identify common interests.
We will find out on Tuesday if Trump and Kim can find that lowest common denominator on which to build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
In the wake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting yesterday with US President Donald Trump, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable role he’s played in facilitating the opening for diplomacy that’s emerged this year between the US and North Korea.
During a tumultuous 2017 on the Korean peninsula, North Korea intensified its missile development program with 16 separate missile tests, and conducted its sixth nuclear weapon test, its most powerful detonation to date. For his part, Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and to “totally destroy” North Korea, insulting Kim Jong-un as “rocket man,” a “madman” and “short and fat” in the process.
He eventually redeployed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to the Sea of Japan, as the drumbeat of war grew louder.
It was a difficult environment for Moon to step into as the new leader of South Korea eager to pursue an agenda of rapprochement with the North. Yet Moon’s government has been able to craft a distinctive approach to engagement with an unpredictable leader like Kim and an American president who is equally erratic and deeply uncertain about his approach to North Korea policy.
Moon has made great strides in recent months, though we will have to hold judgement on the success of his approach until after Korea’s season of summits plays out.
Moon Jae-in came from humble beginnings, born to a poor family who had fled the North during the Korean War. As a student at Kyung Hee University during the 1970s, he was involved in the emerging pro-democracy movement against the dictator Park Chung-hee. He also took part in Operation Paul Bunyan during his compulsory military service, the retaliatory operation to the infamous 1976 killings of two US Army officers by North Korean soldiers (known as the “axe murder incident”).
Moon eventually graduated from university and passed the bar exam in 1982, but was unable to advance in the judiciary due to his pro-democracy activist history. Through the 1980s, Moon partnered in a law firm with future South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, specialising in human rights cases.
Moon’s relationship with Roh would later lead him into politics. He was an official in Roh’s presidential administration, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea in 2004 and was involved in organising the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
Moon made the jump from government official to elected representative in 2012, when he was elected to the South Korean National Assembly. He later launched an unsuccessful campaign for president against Park Geun-hye.
He became chairperson of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy in 2015, which later morphed into the Democratic Party of Korea. Then, a year later, he rose to the forefront of the protest movement against Park and emerged as a leading presidential candidate following her impeachment.
Moon has advocated for a firm but patient strategy in engaging with North Korea. In his inaugural address as president, he expressed a willingness to:
go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula. If necessary, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and under the right circumstances go to Pyongyang, as well. I will do whatever I can to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
His enthusiasm for a more activist approach toward the North contrasted with the freeze in inter-Korean relations that had developed during the more conservative reciprocity-based strategy favoured by presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak.
The strategy is aimed at buttressing regional security through economic and infrastructure linkages, or “nine bridges” between South Korea and Russia in the form of gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the co-development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of the New Northern Policy emerged in Article 1.6 of the Panmunjom Declaration from the recent inter-Korean summit, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ between North and South Korea. These kinds of economic incentives may be highly attractive for North Korea as it pursues its Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development).
Despite taking a firm line on sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, the Moon administration capitalised on the auspiciously timed Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to open a new line of communication with the North Koreans. This bought much-needed time for diplomacy as tensions between the US and North Korea were reaching a boiling point.
Since then, the South Korean government has been subtly attempting to corral the Trump administration into an engagement track with Pyongyang as well. Moon has taken every chance to praise Trump for making the US-North Korea summit possible, and in recent days has tried to smooth over tensions to keep the summit on track after Kim threatened to pull out.
By accident or design, the Moon-Kim summit last month and proposed Trump-Kim summit scheduled for next month have opened a window of opportunity to move away from the status quo toward a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
While Trump and Kim will inevitably grab all the headlines, Moon has been a pivotal actor in this drama. His activism in engaging the North has helped to make it politically safer for the Trump administration to negotiate with Kim, a prospect that was unthinkable only months ago.
The moving footage of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un provided rich symbolism for the negotiations of the third inter-Korean summit, held at Panmunjom on Friday.
While there was no agreement on any substantive outcomes at the summit, the resultant Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula established a foundation for further inter-Korean engagement and set the scene for the upcoming summit between the US and North Korea.
There has been much media conjecture over what exactly the two parties have agreed to at the Panmunjom summit. It is therefore worth examining the declaration article-by-article to ascertain what is and isn’t on the table.
The Panmunjom Agreement is built around three core articles that identify points of agreement between the two parties, address potential local-level security flashpoints, and call for the negotiation of a treaty to formally conclude the Korean War.
Much of what has been agreed to here is not new, having been restated from previous inter-Korean agreements. However, in the context of the heightened tension that has surround the Korean Peninsula over the past year, this material takes on fresh meaning.
The clauses of Article 1 build on existing points of agreement between South Korea and the DPRK that were established during the Sunshine Policy period of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.
In calling on both sides to implement existing inter-Korean agreements, Article I attempts to marshal the authority of the previous agreements as the foundation to legitimise this declaration.
Specifically, these include the June 15th Joint Declaration that emerged from the 2000 summit in Pyongyang between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace, and Prosperity agreed to by Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in October, 2007.
Articles 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 call for continued South-North dialogue and the establishment of a joint liaison office in Gaeseong: a quasi-embassy to more smoothly facilitate those interactions than is currently possible.
With the diplomatic success of the joint Korean team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in mind, the declaration calls for another joint Korean team at the upcoming Asian Games.
Article 1.5 calls for the restarting of the family reunion program to reunite family members separated by the Korean War. Family reunions have been a staple confidence-building measures between the two parties, as reunions satisfy a genuine need for the affected families, are good PR and relatively easy to facilitate.
Most intriguingly, Article 1.6 mentions potential work on railway and road corridors across the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This would link not only North and South Korea but also China via the western transportation route from Seoul to Gaeseong and north to Sinuiju, at the Yalu River crossing point.
Establishing infrastructure connections between China and South Korea, through the DPRK, has been a long-held objective dating back to the Tumen River development zone of the early 1990s.
Article 2 of the Panmunjom Declaration signals possible security-related confidence-building measures on issues of ongoing irritation between the two. These are lowest-common-denominator actions that both sides can agree to, and signal a greater commitment to cooperation.
While they are easy-win measures, they also address friction points in the day-to-day management of the demarcation line. Preventing local-level flashpoints is particularly important given the pressurised security environment of the past year, when military confrontation looked like a real possibility.
The cessation of “hostile acts against each other” around and across the demarcation line articulated in Article 2.1 does not mean there will be any demobilisation of military forces on either side. Rather, that pinprick provocations such as propaganda battles by loudspeaker across the DMZ and the floating of leaflets into DPRK territory by balloon will cease. These are easy measures for each side to agree to without compromising their security posture.
Article 2.2 revisits the concept of a maritime peace zone in the West Sea around the Northern Limit Line, flagged previously in the October 2007 joint declaration.
The two most serious flashpoints of actual military engagement over the past decade— the sinking of the South’s naval corvette Cheonan, and the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — have occurred in this contested maritime space. If the two Koreas were to stumble into a shooting war by accident, this would be the likely flashpoint.
Article 2.3 calls for military-to-military level engagement. This could potentially keep future flashpoint situations in check, although agreement to talk doesn’t signal much more than a discussion at this front end of the confidence-building process.
Stating a commitment to a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War is a feature of previous inter-Korean summit declarations. But in this case, the call has added impetus, as a peace treaty might be the only way forward in an expanded round of engagement that included the United States.
If North Korea refused to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise, there is no other goal toward which negotiations between the three parties could focus.
In Article 3.1, the two Koreas have reaffirmed their non-aggression pact from the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. While the non-aggression clause has been standard fare in joint declarations since that time, this clause has added resonance in the context of the threats of war emanating from the Trump administration over the past year.
Article 3.2 discusses phased disarmament. However, this relates to conventional forces mobilised against each other, and not to nuclear weapons, with the added caveat that other confidence-building measures have been implemented and that “military tensions” (read “the US threat”) have been alleviated.
Like most of the clauses in the Panmunjom Declaration, the veiled reference to the United States in this article is a good example of the negotiated compromise and coded language of the final text.
Article 3.3 talks to the larger great power context by calling for the participation of the original signatories of the Korean War armistice in negotiating a peace treaty. That objective is complicated by the Republic of Korea not being a signatory to the armistice agreement.
The South was represented by the United States in those negotiations, which acted on behalf of the United Nations forces. South Korea will need to be included as a sovereign signatory to a formal treaty to end the Korean War.
Most media attention has focused on Article 3.4, which calls for “complete denuclearisation” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. This is in addition to the call in Article 1.1 for both parties to work together on implementing the 2005 Joint Statement on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the 13 February Agreement of 2007.
However, this clause does not mean North Korea has committed to denuclearisation as that concept is understood by the Trump administration (CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation”). The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea includes the full nuclear weapons relinquishment of the United States as well – something that is obviously not going to fly in Washington.
In stating that “South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea [my emphasis] are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” this article looks more like a statement of goodwill to Washington with an eye toward the upcoming US-DPRK summit than a substantive commitment.
It will be interesting to see if Moon Jae-in accepts the invitation in the conclusion of the declaration to visit Pyongyang later in the year. That will depend on the outcome of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
There is little evidence in the Panmunjom Declaration that the South Koreans have attempted to test the waters for an aggressive American negotiating agenda at the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. There was no statement on specifics like a nuclear weapons freeze or missile testing moratorium. Instead, there seems to be more evidence here of an attempt to firewall the Korean Peninsula against an overly aggressive Trump gambit.
A US-DPRK summit based solely around the US-CVID agenda is doomed for failure, as there are no points of convergence between Washington and Pyongyang. A negotiating agenda that includes a pathway to a formal treaty to end the Korean War has a more realistic chance of progress.
Either way, with the inter-Korean summit concluded, it feels like we are at half time of a hotly contested, high-stakes game of summits in which the second half action is only going to get hotter.