President Donald Trump, accompanied by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, crossed the border at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30 and became the first sitting president to step onto North Korean soil. South Korean president Moon Jae-in was also present and keen to help mediate between the United States and North Korea in hopes of reviving denuclearization talks, which have stalled since the debacle of the abandoned February Hanoi summit.
This unprecedented three-way summit appears to have been essentially a made-for-TV spectacular designed for Trump and Kim’s domestic audiences. Trump’s publicity machine constantly emphasizes the feel-good one-to-one personal relationship between Trump and Kim, but a fundamental question remains: Is there or will there be any actual progress on denuclearization?
So, what did Chairman Kim get from the meeting? It seems he is closer to persuading Trump to accept the North Korean agenda: no pressure for regime change, and a freeze on North Korea’s missile and nuclear program instead of a ban, thus tacitly recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power. It probably means that the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility will be traded for the partial lifting of sanctions against North Korea. If this is the outcome, then clearly Kim will be the big winner from the meeting.
And what about President Moon? Despite his broad smiles during the photo session, he seems ready to make significant concessions to the United States. These may include joining in with sanctions against Huawei, participating in U.S.-led Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, buying more U.S.-made weapons and systems, and agreeing to increased burden-sharing to support the U.S. military presence. Any such concessions would reveal Moon as a serious loser from the meeting.
As for President Trump, he successfully distracted attention from his utter failure on North Korean denuclearization by pretending that his personal relationship with Kim is some kind of historic accomplishment. Kim, of course, is happy to indulge this pathetic charade since he is playing the same game. Moreover, by focusing the attention of America’s citizens on foreign policy, Trump was able to deter the attention of news outlets from his democratic opponents’ presidential primary campaigns and from the continuing investigations into his own conduct. All-in-all this meeting was a big personal and political win for Trump.
So, putting this eye-catching TV show to one side, what is actually happening now on the Korean Peninsula? First, is there any prospect that the military standoff which has blighted the peninsula for almost seven decades will soon come to an end? There is no hint of conventional arms control or reduction, an entirely distinct issue from that of North Korean nuclear capabilities, though there has been a reduction in the bilateral joint military drills between the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and U.S. Forces Korea. There has also been some work to recover the remains of U.S. personnel missing in action, but none of this has changed the facts on the ground: peace has not broken out on the Korean Peninsula.
Second, is there now no possibility at all that the North Korean nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems can be removed? Is a freeze now the best available option? If so, then North Korea will retain the ability to threaten U.S. cities with nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. Even a freeze would require a comprehensive listing of North Korean nuclear assets and facilities, and Trump has conspicuously failed to get that list. Indeed, North Korea would probably not adhere to any nuclear freeze, though its current stock of 20–60 nuclear bombs is already sufficient to achieve recognition as a nuclear power. India, Pakistan and Israel are all nuclear powers. The situation for each country is different but the possession of an effective nuclear deterrent has resulted in permanent geopolitical shifts.
Third, is it time to sign a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War? But the Korean Peninsula is still divided into two countries with competing ideologies and remains technically at war, and North Korea and China have always insisted on a complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from the Korean Peninsula. Does this suggest that China will leave Koreans to determine their own affairs? Surely President Moon is not so naïve, and though his earnest pursuit of a genuine Korean Peace Process may be laudable, it is not yet practicable, given the scant evidence that any of the other parties is acting in good faith.
In summary, the June 30 Panmunjom meeting was a triumph of presentation over substance and delivered very much less than it promised. The military standoff on the Korean Peninsula continues unabated, no one seems serious about a genuine peace treaty, no progress whatsoever was made towards North Korean denuclearization, and all of the leaders demonstrated their hypocrisy, though Moon showed more sincerity than Trump or Kim. The meeting was a shallow exercise in personal promotion by the respective leaders for their domestic ends. It was a TV entertainment spectacular and feel-good moment, which made no useful contribution to the urgent and dire problems of the Korean Peninsula, whose people are the starkest losers from this fiasco.
Sukjoon Yoon is a senior fellow of the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, and Navy Captain, Republic of Korea, retired. He can be reached at [email protected]ima.re.kr.