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Agenda topped by nukes, a lasting peace ‘regime’

Reunions will also be discussed but not joint economic projects
Apr 27,2018
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Today’s meeting between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Peace House on the southern side of Panmunjom could shift the tone of relations between the two Koreas, and possibly put an end to the disputes and deadly attacks that have plagued the peninsula for decades.

Illustrating how high the stakes are, President Moon scheduled no activities outside the Blue House this week to concentrate on his first meeting with Kim, 31 years his junior.

On top of what could be an ambitious agenda is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, an issue that has dominated inter-Korean relations as well as North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world since the early 1990s.

“More than anything else, tomorrow's summit will focus on achieving the denuclearization [of North Korea] and setting in a permanent peace,” said Im Jong-seok, chief of staff for President Moon and chairman of the Blue House’s summit preparation committee, on Thursday during a press briefing.

Other important issues that may be discussed include an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.

Humanitarian issues may also be discussed, most notably reunions of families separated by the three-year war.

While inter-Korean economic cooperation was high on the agenda for both of the two previous summits in 2000 and 2007, the Blue House has downplayed that prospect this time, saying today’s meeting should concentrate on making the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.

Three agenda items the Blue House said will be discussed today are: denuclearization; establishing what it calls a permanent peace regime; and improvement in inter-Korean relations.

Below are details of the agenda expected to be discussed by Moon and Kim today.



Denuclearization issue

The Blue House has repeatedly signaled that getting the North to dismantle its nuclear program is the most important task to be achieved in the Moon-Kim talks. At the same time, it has also acknowledged the North’s denuclearization could not be solved by Seoul alone, but needs to be addressed by Washington.

With that in mind, President Moon emphasized he will serve as a mediator trying to narrow down the differences in positions of Pyongyang and Washington toward the ultimate goal of the North’s denuclearization.

“Through the inter-Korean summit, we must pave the way to a strong milestone that guides us toward the denuclearization of the peninsula, putting in place a permanent peace regime and sustained inter-Korean cooperation,” said Moon on April 19, noting his meeting with Kim should be a “guide” for the Kim-Trump meeting that will follow.

Moon has also stressed that he and Kim were on the same page when it comes to denuclearization, saying Pyongyang was “expressing its willingness for complete denuclearization” - not a nuclear freeze that some pundits say is as far as Pyongyang will be willing to go.

From Moon’s remarks, the North appears willing to go beyond just a nuclear freeze that North Korea critics suspect it will suggest, and toward the complete disarmament of its nuclear arsenal that the international community has called for.

But even if the North is sincere about eliminating its nuclear arsenal and program, the road to that point is likely to be long and windy.

Moon and Kim could declare an agreement today to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula while leaving details to future inter-Korean talks or the upcoming Kim-Trump meeting to be held in late May or June.

“The two leaders are expected to put into words their shared goal of denuclearization in their joint statement, going so far as to declare, ‘The two Koreas affirm a joint commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula,’” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

That would jibe with the Blue House’s position that denuclearization measures should be accomplished “in a gradual manner.”

The Blue House sees a successful outcome to the Kim-Trump meeting as being vital to the North’s denuclearization.

Such a view was affirmed when Chief of Staff Im said earlier this month that inter-Korean agreements from the previous summits in 2000 and 2007 “had difficulty being realized because they were not accompanied by North-U.S. talks.”

Whether Moon is correct in his assessment of Kim’s willingness to consider complete denuclearization, therefore raising the odds of a breakthrough in the Kim-Trump meeting, will be a central point to watch in today’s talks.

Another point to watch is how definitive the North is in describing its intention to denuclearize. The language it uses to confirm its willingness to rid itself of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile technology will be closely scrutinized.

Chief of Staff Im acknowledged Thursday the difficulty the two Koreas will face on the wording in any joint agreement, saying it would be up to Moon and Kim to decide today.

“It is hard for us to say what language will be used,” said Im, noting the core part of the agenda and detailed expression of the agreements “are to be determined by the two leaders.”



Ending the Korean War

The Blue House has highlighted the importance of establishing a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, defining it as “vital to easing inter-Korean tensions.” Putting in place a peace regime requires a formal end to the Korean War.

While South Korea is a direct stakeholder in ending the war, putting the Korean War to an end for good cannot be done by Seoul and Pyongyang bilaterally because the armistice treaty that stopped the conflict was signed by the United Nations Command on behalf of South Korea, as well as the Chinese and North Korean militaries.

Elaborating on the peace regime concept, a senior presidential official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the process would require an agreement between the two Koreas, but added it might also require consent from other nations, referring to China and the United States.

The importance of getting Washington on board was reflected in President Moon’s phone conversation with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, in which he said that declaring an end to the Korean War “at least required a consensus among South and North Korea and the United States.”

While a bilateral agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang alone would not be sufficient to put a formal end to the Korean War, the two could declare their shared desire for a peace treaty. That shared position could induce Washington and Beijing to discuss formally ending the war by signing a peace treaty.

Until now, one major roadblock that has kept a peace treaty from being signed has been Pyongyang’s insistence that the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea should be withdrawn should a peace treaty be signed, a demand considered a deal-breaker by both Seoul and Washington. Moon said on April 19 that the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea was not on Pyongyang’s list of demands in return for denuclearization.

“Seoul and Pyongyang can’t settle on specific terms for a peace treaty bilaterally at this stage at the April 27 summit,” said Professor Koh of Dongguk University. “The two are likely to reaffirm what they agreed on in the Oct. 4 joint declaration in respect to a peace treaty.

In that declaration, which was signed at the second inter-Korean summit on Oct. 4, 2007, the two said they “both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime” and agreed that they should “work together with other countries directly involved in this matter,” referring to the United States and China, to “declare an end to the Korean War.”

It will be equally important for Pyongyang and Washington to reach a consensus on the North’s denuclearization to officially end the Korean War. Without an agreement on the North’s denuclearization between Pyongyang and Washington - the most important issue of all - other issues such as signing a peace treaty have little chance of being resolved.

While signing a peace treaty can’t be done bilaterally, the two Koreas could agree on specific measures to ease military tensions along the border, such as stopping propaganda radio broadcasts. Gradual withdrawal of military posts inside the demilitarized zone could also be discussed in today’s talks.



Family reunions

The holding of reunions for families separated by the Korean War could be included in joint agreements today.

Last held in October 2015, the reunions are longed for by thousands of Koreans who hope to see their relatives again before they die. According to government data, more than half of those registered for reunions, or 73,611 out of 131,531, have passed away as of March this year. About 3,600 separated family members die each year on average due to aging.

A senior presidential official said the issue of family reunions “will be raised as an important agenda item” by the South. “We expect there will be a meaningful agreement on the issue.”



Holding regular summits

Moon is expected to raise the notion of holding inter-Korean summits on a regular basis as he sees such meetings as “vital” to easing inter-Korean tensions.

“The desires to dramatically ease inter-Korean tensions and set in place a peace regime are both shared by the South and North,” said a senior presidential official, “and holding regular inter-Korean summits is being pushed for [by the Blue House] as the key to achieve such goals.”

If Moon and Kim agree to meet again in the coming months, the issue of inter-Korean economic cooperation will likely be discussed, provided the Kim-Trump meeting produces tangible outcomes and the North proceeds toward denuclearization, which should lead to the withdrawal of international economic sanctions and enable business investments to be made in the North.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]