Moon aims to meet Washington and Pyongyang halfway

By Yeo Jun-suk

Moon expected to push Kim to promise nuclear inventory in exchange for declaration of end to Korean War.

  • Published : Sept 17, 2018 - 16:18
  • Updated : Sept 17, 2018 - 20:31

With President Moon Jae-in heading to Pyongyang on Tuesday for his third meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there is a sense of expectation -- and caution -- over whether Moon can pull off his role as a mediator in stalled denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea. 

In his first meeting with Kim in April, Moon helped to ease escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In his second meeting the following month, Moon met Kim to sustain momentum for North Korea’s first-ever summit with the US.

The third meeting with Kim sees Moon in a much tougher position than before: Moon is under pressure to break the monthslong impasse in the denuclearization talks and pave the way for a second Trump-Kim summit.

“This third summit should be about, among other things, finding out how to adjust the existing framework of negotiations in order to set the groundwork for a second Kim-Trump summit,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a Virginia-based research group. 

South Korea`s President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un during their first summit at the truce village of Panmunjom in April. Yonhap
Following their June summit in Singapore, North Korea and the US remain at odds over how to carry out their vaguely-worded agreement and who should make concessions to move negotiations forward.

While North Korea has accused the US of making “gangster-like” demands for denuclearization and delaying a declaration to end the Korean War, Washington maintains that such a declaration cannot come before North Korea shows more concrete steps toward giving up its nukes in a verifiable way.

The deadlock has prompted Moon to seek to broker a deal between Pyongyang and Washington, with experts calling for Moon to come up with a framework in which both sides can make concessions without losing face.
“The most likely proposal to be made by Moon is that Kim should promise something equivalent to the declaration of its nuclear program and Washington should reciprocate by signing an end-of-the-war declaration” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.

Speculation has been rising here that Moon will propose a formula to Kim, to which the North Korean leader will make a “verbal commitment” to provide a detailed list of its nuclear arsenal, and the US, in return, would reward it with an agreement to end the war.

The declaration of an end to the war has been a point of contention between North Korea and the US.

Citing unnamed sources, Vox reported last month that the stalemate occurred because Trump told North Korea’s leader Kim that he would sign the peace agreement soon after their Singapore summit.

While it is still uncertain whether the US would accept the idea of “declaration-for-declaration exchange,” Kim of Kyungnam University said it would help to have North Korea and the US “almost simultaneously declare” North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the end of the Korean War.

“It is the US who changed the narrative about the end-of-the-war declaration and created a distorted frame to the international audience. As far as this particular issue is concerned, the Trump administration should be blamed,” professor Kim said.
President Moon Jae-in. Yonhap

Military confidence-building high on Moon’s agenda

Meanwhile, the two Koreas have made progress on improving inter-Korean ties since the April summit and translating it into a more substantive agreement will be high on Moon’s agenda in Pyongyang.

For the first time since the Korean War, the two Koreas last week established a permanent line of communication at the North Korean border town of Kaesong. They have also held a series of sport and social exchanges, including a reunion event of separated families last month.

With ambitious cross-border economic cooperation projects stalled by international sanctions on North Korea, Moon is focusing on reaching a specific agreement to ease military tensions and build a peace regime, experts said.

“Moon’s idea is achieving economic cooperation through peaceful relations with North Korea,” said professor Kim. “If Moon and Kim can hammer out a specific agreement, it would amount to an end-of –the-war declaration.”

In his speech on Liberation Day on Aug. 15, Moon said building confidence in military matters with North Korea is crucial to improving inter-Korean ties. Laying out his vision to establish a special economic zone in cross-border regions, Moon proclaimed, “Peace is economy.”

Withdrawing of guard posts from the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, disarming the jointly controlled security area inside the DMZ and excavating war remains buried along the border with North Korea are some of the measures being considered.

Through a series of cross-border military talks, the two sides are reported to have reached a broad agreement. National security adviser Chung Eui-young said Wednesday “concrete consultation” is underway to prevent accidental skirmishes in land, air and sea. 

Chung, who arranged the third inter-Korean summit during his visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, said the military talks showed the two Koreas pursuing “operational arms control” -- an idea aimed at reducing miliatry tensions by adjusting troop deployments and training schedules.

But the prospect of broader military cooperation remains unclear. Defense officials said while there were talks on establishing a “buffer zone” in the maritime border and designating “no-fly zone” in the DMZ, the issues remain unresolved, to be discussed at the summit.

“I need you to understand the military is pushing the initiative to the extent that it would not undermine defense posture,” Defense Minister nominee Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo told lawmakers Monday during his confirmation hearing.

Split with Washington?

Whatever the outcome of the third inter-Korean summit, its impact on the alliance between the US and South Korea is likely to be limited. However, some deals might be considered reckless by Washington and undermine the allies’ effort to build united front against North Korea, experts said.

Moon has reiterated that any progress in inter-Korean relations should go hand-in-hand with relations with the US. Moon will travel to New York after his meeting with Kim to brief Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly

But there are still concerns in Washington that Moon may push his agenda too fast at the cost of hampering the alliance. Most notably, analysted pointed to the risk of Moon's relying on Kim's good faith to pursue an official end to the Korean War.  

“This is a very unpopular plan in Washington and among general foreign policy experts in the US because it puts the alliance’s future at risk in exchange for good faith from North Korea,” said Van Jackson, a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

“I think the South Korean government isn’t being honest with itself about the implications a peace declaration would have for the alliance,” said Jackson, warning against the possibilities that the declaration could lead to the withdrawal of US troops in South Korea.

Jackson, a former strategist at the US Defense Department, said it would be a mistake to rely on North Korea’s good faith, given the country’s failures in providing a transparent account of its nuclear capabilities.

North Korea claims that it has taken serious steps toward denuclearization -- including its unilateral dismantlement of nuclear testing site and missile engine test facilities -- but none of North Korea’s actions so far have been verified by outsiders.

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, also said the very nature of the North Korean regime leaves Washington reluctant to accept mere verbal assurances from North Korea’s leader Kim or to sign an end-of-war declaration.

“The United States does not want President Moon to effectively sign away the end of the (South Korea)-US alliance by agreeing to declare an end of the war without a concrete plan for North Korea’s denuclearization,” he said.  

“After all, North Korea’s dictatorship is far more able to ignore such an agreement than constitutional democracies. … Meaningful steps toward dismantling nuclear and missile programs remain the singular stumbling block to realizing the hope of earlier summits.”

By Yeo Jun-suk(