Summit: Will Koreas reap peace harvest?

North Korean President Kim Jong-un suddenly has a pretty full diary of international engagements. He made his maiden overseas trip to China in March this year to meet Premier Xi Jinping for the very first time. Made with no public announcement, the meeting was obviously important for both sides before President Kim starts engaging with other world leaders on the knotty nuclear concerns that his nuclear and missile activities have generated across the world.

For Kim, the optics of Chinese support is important to create the necessary manoeuvring space during his negotiations with his neighbour, the Republic of Korea, as also his main adversary, America. Meanwhile, for China, the meeting with Kim Jong-un was important to underline its own relevance to the resolution of the nuclear imbroglio after having let the impression take root that Beijing’s leverage with Kim had reduced.

Though nothing of real substance about what transpired between the two has been officially revealed, it can be safely surmised that the two would have had a heart-to-heart exchange on what they desire from each other as well as on how to engage with Seoul and Washington in the coming meetings.

The Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting is still a month or so away. But, in April is scheduled another important summit between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. An air of tentative anticipation hangs over Seoul in the run up to the April 27 meeting. An inter-Korean summit preparation committee has already met four times to carry out agenda identification. This is important since the two sides must approach the longstanding issue of inter-Korean ties with a sense of clarity on expected outcomes. Unnecessary burdening of the interaction with all issues of mistrust and concerns that bedevil the relationship would be a sure way to derail it right at the beginning.

So, for now, RoK has identified three major issues — denuclearisation, inter-Korean relations and establishing peace. Seoul has expressed its willingness to maintain a flexible approach for a candid and inclusive dialogue. The Moon administration has also gone to the extent of not including the issue of human rights violations in North Korea so as not to overload this historic summit.

Yet, there is no guarantee that the talks might not stumble over the very definition of denuclearisation. This much-used term by all sides actually means different things for DPRK, RoK and the US. South Korea seeks a complete abandonment of the nuclear programme by Pyongyang, which means mothballing existing facilities under international verification in order to have a nuclear-free North Korea. It argues that it has already lived up to its own part of the denuclearisation pact when the US removed nuclear weapons from RoK following the Joint Declaration on Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula signed by the two countries on December 31, 1991. For DPRK, though, denuclearisation also includes the formal revocation of the nuclear umbrella extended by Washington to Seoul, withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula, and the signing of a peace treaty.

Besides these definitional issues that will complicate the negotiations, it can also be expected that alliance coordination will cast a shadow on the summits. Given that Presidents Moon and Trump do not necessarily see eye to eye on everything connected withNorth Korea, this will allow greater space to Kim Jong-un to play one against the other. At the same time, China’s relationship with not only Pyongyang and Seoul but also with Washington will bring in its own dynamics.

Seoul is the most affected party as far as the outcome of these summits is concerned, but the DPRK is actually interested in striking a deal with Washington. For Washington, staying true to its alliance commitments with Seoul is important for the sake of continued credibility of its extended deterrence to other non-nuclear countries. But  Trump could be interested in an out of the box solution that seals his legacy. China, on the other hand, is certain to ensure that any situation that emerges does not impinge on its security interests in any adverse way.

Simply put then, the current interplay of inter-state equations and the presence of hard-nosed, nationalist leaders in each country will impact the outcome. Much is riding on this season of summits. While all balls are presently up in the air, perhaps, one way of defining the meetings as successful may be if the top leaderships could arrive at a formulation of something like a joint statement that broadly outlines the vision of a peaceful relationship, and which supports the process of further talks to flesh out
details.

Obviously, one summit cannot suffice for resolution of such a protracted problem. But the very articulation of the continued pursuit of a new security paradigm could be a rich harvest of this summitry. In other words, let’s keep our expectations low, and hope to be surprised.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)

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