At the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un boldly pronounced a new era for the Korean peninsula, “free from war.”
The two Korean leaders announced a long list of actionable steps they would take to improve relations, from establishing a reunion center for divided families to re-opening Mt. Kumgang and the Kaesong industrial zone. The defense ministers also agreed to reduce military tensions, from downsizing the number of guards near the Military Demarcation Line to de-mining a jointly controlled village in the DMZ.
The world’s attention, however, zeroed in on the one issue that could strain progress between the two Koreas: the de-nuclearization of North Korea. And the issue has some asking if we might soon see a return to the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
At the summit, Kim pledged “to make a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” He committed to dismantling the Dongchang-ri launch pad and engine test stand, an important but limited confidence building measure, and reiterated a willingness to take bigger measures, such as dismantling facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.
The administration’s reaction was, unsurprisingly, positive. Following the Summit, Donald Trump Tweeted, “Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts. In the meantime there will be no Rocket or Nuclear testing.”
But there’s one big caveat that might still rear its ugly head – those “final negotiations.” While North Korea has agreed to move forward with dismantling Dongchang-ri, already in progress, the biggest potential nuclear concession, the dismantlement of Yongbyon, would depend on “corresponding measures” by the United States. In other words, North Korea won’t do anything it’s not already doing without a tradeoff, action-for-action.
Moon has long said that the denuclearization of North Korea should be the end goal of a peace process. But talks have stalled between Washington and Pyongyang because the Trump administration feels the Kim regime has made inadequate progress towards denuclearization.
North Korea is unlikely to unilaterally surrender its nuclear weapons without improved relations with the United States. And we know that the past three administrations under Clinton, Bush, and even Obama (as Woodward’s new book reveals) weighed a first strike on North Korea. Kim has seen what happened to Iraq, Libya and Iran, not to mention his own country’s history of surviving indiscriminate US bombing during the Korean War, when 80 percent of North Korean cities were obliterated.
This is why the Singapore Declaration, while thin on substance, sets forth a new path towards peace and denuclearization. The first two points stress the importance of improved relations and the establishment of a peace process. Denuclearization is third.
The problem is in the order. The United States won’t pursue a peaceful, normalized relationship with North Korea until Pyongyang has denuclearized. And North Korea won’t abandon its nukes until it has a peaceful, normalized relationship with Washington.
Stalemate it is.
But while North Korea may not yet have taken real steps toward denuclearization, the Kim regime has taken concrete steps toward improving relations with Washington. It dismantled a missile-engine testing site, released three detained Americans, and repatriated the remains of fallen US servicemen from the Korean War.
North Korea has made clear that denuclearization will require a peace process that includes concrete steps toward a peace treaty, as promised in the 1953 Armistice Agreement signed by the United States, North Korea, and China. James Laney, a former US ambassador to South Korea under Clinton believes, “A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Absent such a peace treaty, every dispute presents afresh the question of the other side’s legitimacy.”
During the Summit, Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that Moon’s trip to Pyongyang would “undermine efforts by @SecPompeo and Ambassador @nikkihaley to impose maximum pressure on the North Korean regime.” But continuing a failed policy of “maximum pressure” will not break this impasse.
“Maximum pressure” or its predecessor “strategic patience” has failed to lead to North Korean denuclearization. What has worked to move North Korea, as this latest series of summits has demonstrated, is meeting, face-to-face, and building trust. After almost two years in the White House, President Trump has tried both “fire and fury” and meeting Kim in Singapore. And the outcomes are clear. Diplomacy and engagement has proven far more effective in moving North Korea toward denuclearization than military posturing and punishing sanctions. A resumption of maximum pressure, on the other hand, could lead to an escalation of the conflict, alienation of our South Korean allies, and even war.
Declaring an end to the Korean War would be a “corresponding measure,” and a constructive step toward the denuclearization of North Korea. Such progress requires bold thinking. And it requires the Trump administration to take a diplomatic risk. But that is exactly what it must do: dare to put peace first.
Christine Ahn is the Founder and International Coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.
Correction issued 9/20: A previous version of this article implied that Kim Jong Un had promised to close Yongbyon. In fact, Kim has only reiterated a willingness to take measures such as closing Yongbyon.