08.03.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Summits Between North and South Korea – Past and Present


Kim Jong-un’s proposal for a summit between the two Koreas, which the DPRK’s delegation handed to the South Korean president during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, has been described as the ”most significant moment” in the Olympic thaw, and not surprisingly, it has generated a lot of discussion, generally positive in tone. Optimistic experts are talking about the summit as if it is imminent, and (according to a poll of 1026 people, conducted by the Korean Public Opinion Institute on 12and 13 February), of 77.4% of South Koreans consider that it is likely to take place. A special envoy has been sent to Pyongyang, and this is interpreted as a first step towards the summit.

In theory, the new summit is to be a continuation of the summits held in 2000 and 2007, and so it may be worth reminding readers about what happened on those occasions.

Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” was also an attempt to incorporate North Korea- but this strategy was based on soft power: the name of the policy came from Aesop’s fable about the contest between the North Wind and the Sun to make a man take off his cloak. However hard the wind blew, the man just wrapped his cloak tighter, but, in the heat of the sun, the man his own cloak off himself. It was hoped that, little by little, dialogue and involving North Korea in bilateral talks would achieve three things: the North Korean regime would become more open, its people would start to see the outside world in a more positive light and as a result would seek changes and a new relationship with South Korea, and North Korea would start planning for a gradual reunification. Pragmatic observers were left in little doubt about who that reunification was intended to benefit.

On June 13, 2000, the South Korean president flew to Pyongyang and met Kim Jong-il.

The summit’s main achievement was the North–South Joint Declaration, which had five points:

1. An agreement by the two Koreas to work towards reunification independently and through peaceful means.
2. A recognition that North and South Korea’s proposal for a confederation shares a common element with the two countries’ intention to move towards reunification gradually and without one country absorbing the other into itself.
3. An agreement to arrange visits between members of families divided by the border, and to address other humanitarian problems.
4. An agreement to develop economic cooperation, links and contacts in the fields of culture, sport, environmental protection etc.
5. An agreement to hold a dialogue between the authorities of the two countries in order to put the terms of the agreement into practical effect.

In reality, the summit’s main achievement was probably the fact that the two leaders met each other at all, thereby demonstrating to the world that the two Koreas were really ready for dialogue and could talk to each other directly without any external assistance or the need for any other country to act as an intermediary.. At last that summit appeared to officially recognize the actual situation: the existence of two separate states on the Korean peninsula, and relations between North and South Korea started improving noticeably, a process that only stopped with the second stage of the nuclear crisis in autumn 2002. 

On 13 October 2000 awarded Kim Dae-jung the Nobel Peace Prize for his “for his work throughout his life for democracy and human rights, and for peace and reconciliation between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea in particular”. That was the first time the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to a Korean. The prize was not awarded to Kim Jong-il, however, although on previous occasions, when comparable international agreements had been signed, the prize had been shared by both parties.

Kim Jong-un planned to make a return visit to Seoul, but it never took place. That was not just because of serious opposition from the opposition and in conservative circles, but also because, strictly speaking, under South Korea’s Law on National Security the North Korean leader would be subject to immediate arrest as a state criminal as soon as he crossed the border.

On 4 October 2007, Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun signed a Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity, which, in its fifth article, declared that the parties intended to create a “peace and cooperation zone” in the Yellow Sea, which would be similar to the DMZ, or a shared commercial fishing zone. As later developments demonstrated, the attempt to prevent armed clashes in the area of the North Limit Line might have been a much more important result of the visit.

Besides, the two countries also planned to continue onto the second stage of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, arrange the passage of freight trains between Munsan and Pondong (the line between these stations was opened on 11 December 2007), to create a shipbuilding facility in Nampho and Anbyon, reconstruct the railway between Kaesong and Sinuiju and the highway between Kaesong and Pyongyang, to be used by both countries.  In the long term the economic effect from the implementation of these joint economic projects could have reached 150 billion dollars.

Despite the declaration, the second summit between the two countries was just a shadow of the first one. While the final protocol statement contained plenty of reasonable-sounding statements on cooperation, it was clear that the implementation was at risk, as the summit had been arranged at relatively short notice, just two months before the Korean presidential elections , and was therefore more of a ceremonial event intended to boost its initiators’ political ratings within South Korea. Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, would have to have put the agreement into effect, but at the first opportunity he first suspended it and then, following the scandal related to the death of a South Korean tourist in 2008 and then the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in 2010, he disavowed the agreement entirely.

So- let us now look at the prospects of the 2018 summit. First, in order for it to take place, the internal and external political situation has to be right. In a rather difficult internal political situation, President Moon’s visit to Pyongyang met with fierce resistance from the opposition, and it is unlikely that the initiative will be fully supported by the United States. At the very least, the visit must not be seen as a step backwards in the policy of putting “maximum pressure” on the DPRK that Washington is calling for. It is true that the US also talks about dialogue with Pyongyang, but it either understood as ‘agreement to capitulate and being ready to discuss the details’, or it wants North Korea to disarm before any talks take place.

Secondly, if the summit does take place, then it will be important to come back with some kind of agreement- something more substantial than a statement of intentions. In the meantime, the current state of the sanctions against North Korea is an obstacle to any economic cooperation between the two countries, let alone major infrastructure projects. Now, in order to prevent the delivery of ‘dual use’ items, even the delivery of humanitarian aid to North Korea is subject to a mass of restrictions. Readers will remember that, during the Winter Olympics, it was not possible to present the North Korean delegation with hockey sticks, for example, as these are on the list of sanctioned items.

As for agreements on cultural exchanges or meetings between members of divided families, in reality neither Pyongyang nor Seoul are particularly interested in these issues, and, crucially, they are no more than a first step towards something more important, and are not in themselves enough to justify a summit.

Thirdly, it is important to address the  painful subject of “denuclearising the DPRK” – when President Trump and President Moon talked by telephone on March 1, they reached an agreement that South Korea and the USA would continue in their efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and that any dialogue with Pyongyang should focus on that goal.

President Moon will thus have to, at the very least, mention the issue of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament in the summit. But a mere attempt by South Korea to talk about this subject during January’s talks met with such a harsh reaction from North Korea that the subject was quickly brushed under the carpet. Pyongyang firmly stated that nuclear disarmament would not be discussed. At all. Ever.

So, if President Moon does raise that issue, there is a risk of the talks collapsing or not resulting in any agreement, while if he fails to raise it then both his foreign allies and internal political opponents will see him as capitulating to the North.

Fourthly, the third summit to take place in Pyongyang will make it all too clear which party initiated the dialogue. It will be remembered that, because of the number of Olympic concessions, a lot of South Koreans – and not just political conservatives- jokingly called the PyeongChang Olympics the “Pyongyang” Olympics.

Certain analysts write that the Winter Olympics, and the visits that they served as a pretext for, have helped to stabilize relations between the two Koreas. Nevertheless, the situation can change just as rapidly, as no firm foundation for cooperation between the two countries has been established. Actually, at the moment everything depends on the good will of Kim Jong-un, who initiated the current thaw in relations. It remains to be seen how long his patience will last, and what will happen if he is frustrated in his attempts to improve relations with Seoul and Washington.

(By the way,  in the author’s view, Moscow could have proposed its territory as a venue for the summit. A meeting between the two leaders in a neutral territory would free Seoul from the need to ignore the Law on National Security if summit was to be held on its territory or remove any ground for accusations that the South Korean leadership is making third “kowtowing” trip to the North.)

Of course, the South Korean president will try to extend the current thaw: in part, this was the reason for the visit of a special envoy to Pyongyang, but even a representative delegation of that sort is very far from the level of a summit. We will therefore hope for a closer rapprochement, and that the “necessary conditions” will, after all, sooner or later come into being.

However, in recent days it was reported that as a result of negotiations in Pyongyang held on March 5-6, the summit was scheduled for the end of April. This is not bad news as this fact is prolonging the recent Olympic warming in bilateral ties, but the questions about what will be discussed at the summit and what fruits it will bringing, aside from friendly handshakes, still remains.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”