The Inter-Korean Summit: Why now?
It’s been a decade since the last summit between North and South Korea, but Kim Jong Un has good reason for returning to the negotiating table
The third Inter-Korean Summit, and the first in a decade, will be held between the South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday.
The meeting is being viewed as a potential step towards finally ending the Korean War, which is technically still going after a ceasefire in 1953 resulted in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The talks will be held at Peace House on the South Korean side of the border, in the demilitarized zone. They are the first to be held in the South after Pyongyang, the North’s capital, hosted a summit in 2000 and another in 2007.
For Kim, 2018 is the year to come to the negotiating table to bargain his status as a nuclear state. This time, the third-generation dynastic leader enters talks as head of a nuclear state, wishing to be on par with the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The biggest difference between this summit and the previous two is that North Korea is coming to the table as a de facto nuclear state; a better negotiating position than before.
So how did North Korea reach this position of relative strength, despite more than two decades of the West trying to put a stop to its nuclear ambitions?
A brief history of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation
North Korea’s nuclear program dates back to the 1960s, when the Soviet Union supported the country to develop nuclear energy, which in turn provided the knowledge and materials to start working on its future weapons program.
By 1994, the US was sufficiently concerned to enter nuclear negotiations with the North. Then US President Clinton promised to deliver energy, economic and humanitarian assistance in return for North Korea halting its nuclear programs.
A multinational institution, the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), was set up to provide energy, composed mainly of South Korean funding but with contributions from other countries, including Australia.
However, the energy and economic assistance North Korea wanted and the international community promised was not fully delivered, because Pyongyang was suspected of secretly developing nuclear programs.
Then, in his 2002 State of the Union Address, which was made in the aftermath of 9/11, former US President George Bush called North Korea one of the ‘axis of evil’ (together with Iran and Iraq), further inflaming tensions. In 2003, after years of uncertainty, Pyongyang finally withdrew from the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
This time, Beijing realised the seriousness of the North’s nuclear ambition and initiated the second round of negotiations in a multilateral platform involving the two Koreas, China, US, Japan and Russia, known as the ‘six party talks’. The lengthy talks led to an agreement in 2005, but this soon fell apart as none of the parties were delivering what they promised they would. Later that year, the US froze US$25 million of North Korean assets.
Even after North Korea invited International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and blew up its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in 2008, there was no trust among the parties. The six party talks ended with the North’s second nuclear test in 2009.
Nine years passed with President Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ and two conservative governments in Seoul. There were no direct communications with North Korea despite Kim Jong Un being seen at multiple missile and nuclear test sites.
At the same time, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against the Kim regime that further isolated the country and hardened the system, creating the perfect conditions for the completion of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles that can now reach US soil.
Fundamentally, it is North Korea’s insecurity that drove its nuclear development. But Washington’s ‘strategic ignorance’ and Seoul’s loud speaker policy, where it plays propaganda over the border, are also partially responsible for failing to stop Pyongyang from further developing and completing its nuclear program.
Kim Jong Un achieved his goal of becoming a nuclear state by 2017. Weapons experts testify that North Korea now has both nuclear warheads and delivery systems.
It is unlikely Kim will give up his nuclear weapons unless he no longer feels threatened by the US.
North Korea is not crazy or evil. In fact it is totally rational. It is not surprising it feels threatened by its economically better off and freer neighbour to the South and its alliance with the US under Trump.
But there is hope.
Just last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly visited Pyongyang. Shortly afterwards, Kim Jong Un announced he would dismantle nuclear test sites in Punggye-ri and freeze inter-continental missiles tests.
North Korea has been requesting the end of US hostility, the establishment of a peace treaty, the re-establishment of a diplomatic relationship with the US and Japan, lifted sanctions and a renewed energy supply.
While Friday’s summit with South Korea is an important step, it only paves the way towards a Kim-Trump summit where the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) will need to be discussed.
Kim has already placed his first card on the table ahead of the two summits. South Korean President Moon’s efforts may propose a peace treaty, but it can’t be done without the US and China - as they were the parties to the 1953 armistice.
It is a long road to CVID, but it’s not impossible. What we need is ‘strategic engagement’.
Banner image: North Korea claimed to developed a hydrogen bomb which can be loaded into the country’s new intercontinental ballistic missile in September 2017. Picture: Getty Images