01.10.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Fifth Summit Between North and South Korea – Results and Achievements So Far


As we have already looked at what happened in the summit and the reactions to it, we can now discuss the main results and the documents that have been signed, to see whether the initial expectations have been fulfilled. Readers will remember that before the summit certain South Korean media sources wrote that: “denuclearisation will be the key issue for the summit. Other subjects that will be discussed in the summit include the improvement and development of relations between North and South Korea (including a declaration that the Korean War is officially over) and a decrease in military tensions.”

The main result of the summit is the Pyongyang Declaration, consisting of five main points, and also Kim Jong-un’s promise to visit Seoul “in the near future”. This is an important document, but officially it has the status of a memorandum of understanding. It is no coincidence that the South Korean ruling party is now proposing the ratification of the previous such document, the result of the third summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un.

The first point of the declaration deals with the reduction of military tensions. It sets out an extensive action plan primarily aimed at minimising the risk of war breaking out over a trifle, a danger that the present author has discussed in more than one article. In addition to creating a direct channel for communications and establishing a special joint committee to deal with emergencies and monitor the implementation of military agreements, the heads of the two countries’ militaries signed not just a declaration but a full-scale agreement aimed at reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula and preventing military clashes from breaking out accidentally. “Both parties have agreed to abstain from any means or methods to infiltrate or invade each other’s territory” and have “agreed to fully abstain from any aggressive actions whether by air, sea or land, that could trigger conflict or military tensions.”

This document sets out in a concrete form the following steps, already agreed by the parties.

  • A 10-kilometre wide buffer zone is to be established along the land border, which will, from November 1 2018, be closed to military aviation, artillery fire and military exercises.
  • A similar buffer zone, 80 km wide, is to be established along the two countries’ maritime border to prevent any clashes between their naval forces.
  •  Both sides agree to remove their 11 guard posts from the DMZ and move their observation posts more than a kilometre away from the demarcation line.
  • The staff of the Panmunjom border point will no longer bear arms and the number of troops in the DMZ joint security zone will also be reduced to 35 on either side.
  • The protocol to be followed in the event of incidents has been changed: the rhetoric has shifted from threats – “a tenfold response to provocations” to caution – “whatever happens, do not fire.”

The document also deals with corridors and no-fly zones for both unmanned and manned aircraft, the withdrawal of troops to at least 5 km from the border, communications in the event of an emergency, systems to notify each party about activities of the other, the use of shared radio frequencies etc. The two countries’ militaries have also agreed to work on the removal of the remains of persons killed during the Korean war from the DMZ and to start clearing it of mines.

However all these declarations about renouncing hostile intentions are NOT the official end of the Korean war: the peace agreement – if we are not too pedantic about formats – makes the two countries equal parties while the South Korean Constitution treats the whole peninsula as part of South Korea. Therefore, while giving the declaration all the respect it is due, the war can not be said to be “over”.

The second point of the declaration deals with cooperation on the economy, infrastructure projects, medicine and forestry. It covers both clearly hypothetical projects and those which are already under way or are at least highly feasible.

The most immediate of these involve cooperation on reforesting parts of North Korea, as joint environmental projects of this type do not fall under the sanctions. Another critical issue is cooperation in the fight to prevent epidemics, as sanctions have had a serious effect on the North Korean healthcare system: the country has no modern medicines or – because the sanctions prohibit the import of parts – working diagnostic equipment of the type used in the West.

And it is still too early to talk about the possibility of renewing work on the Kaesong industrial complex, closed under the Conservatives, or the Kimgansan tourism project, not to mention more serious issues. Joint economic projects are covered by the sanctions and, as the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a tweet on September 17, the sanctions against North Korea are an inseparable part of the denuclearisation efforts.

On September 23, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, also stated in an interview with CNN that the sanctions will continue until the complete and controlled denuclearisation of North Korea. Yes, the North has stopped its nuclear and rocket tests and the leaders of the two Koreas are improving their relations, but there is still a long way to go until the final goal is reached. The USA will continue to exert strong pressure through sanctions, after all Nikki Haley believes that it is thanks to the sanctions that the North has started talking.

The same also applies to uniting the two countries’ transport infrastructure. Thus, even though so far it is not possible even to inspect the track properly, the two countries have agreed to hold an “epoch-making ceremony” to celebrate the reunification of their railway systems by the end of the year: this would be a purely symbolic event with no connection to any actual progress.

The third point of the declaration deals with a change in the format of reunions between members of divided families. Instead of periodic meetings, a permanent communications point will start operating, and there are plans for the possible exchange of video messages and setting up video bridges. Discussions on this point have been going on for some time now, all that remains to be done is to fix a date. However, whatever happens, a significant number of elderly citizens have had their hopes raised. After all, as of the end of May 2018, out of 132,124 members of divided families, 75,234 have already died and 85% of the rest are over 70 years old. Therefore it was essential to set up a functioning centre for reunions between members of divided families as soon as possible.

The fourth point deals with cooperation in the areas of culture and sport and the holding of ceremonial events.  The parties have even decided to submit a joint application to host the 2032 Olympic Games and have promised to send a joint team of athletes to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.  The author sees these as ceremonial events which are fairly easy to arrange but may also serve as a pretext, or preparation, for more serious steps.

Here it is worth mentioning that Seoul has also announced the launch of a new television channel about North Korea, which will inform South Koreans about life and culture in the DPRK. That is not mentioned in the Declaration, but such a step seems reasonable especially as parts of the summit were broadcast live and ordinary South Koreans were able to see that North Korea is much less like Mordor than the propaganda tends to suggest.

And, finally, the fifth point of the declaration deals with nuclear disarmament and, in the author’s view, it is important that this was saved until the end. The text states an intention to make the Korean peninsula a “land of peace” free from nuclear weapons and threats. In it North Korea promises to finally dismantle the facilities at the Sohae rocket testing site under the supervision of foreign experts. Work on this started at the beginning of July, but stopped on August 3 when the talks with the USA stalled. North Korea has expressed a willingness to close the reactor in Yongbyon if the US makes concessions in return, and agrees to “cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization.”

South Korean media report that it “would be desirable if Moon Jae-in receives assurances from Kim Jong-un that he will release data on the North Korean arsenal. But experts agree that that is highly unlikely.” That assessment has turned out to be accurate: there is no reference in the documents to any specific deadlines, although it is possible that Kim Jong-un gave him an oral message to be passed on to Donald Trump.

The sixth point, in which Kim Jong-un promises to visit Seoul, is deceptive, but there remains the question of what Moon Jae-in would do with the National Security Law. That law defines North Korea as a criminal anti-state organisation, whose leader, if he were to travel to South Korea, would (at least in theory) have to be arrested immediately and tried as a war criminal. However, Sohn Kyung-shik, the head of the South Korean conglomerate CJ Group, who was a member of the delegation has already said that Kim Jong-un will visit Seoul in December. We will see what happens…

The summit has had one more important result – it has affected the frequency of future summits. As Moon Jae-in said on September 18 before his flight to Pyongyang, relations between the two Koreas are, little by little, approaching the stage when its leaders are able, if necessary, to meet each other at any moment.  Three meetings in one year- and it is not over yet.

Moon Jae-in also said that “the leaders of the two countries now have a close personal relationship”. Following a North Korean initiative, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un went on a joint visit to Paektu Mountain. In the parts that were included in the live broadcast, the two leaders were shown behaving naturally and walked towards each other with no sign of tension. South Korean civil servants showed Kim Jong-un how to make the “Korean heart” gesture for a selfie, and, in a nod to Mon Jae-in’s habit of eating in cheap noodle bars packed with ordinary people, both leaders with their wives sat in a new fish restaurant along with ordinary residents of Pyongyang- who certainly didn’t look like a carefully selected crowd.

Naturally, the international community, including the USA, China, Russia and Japan, rushed to welcome the Pyongyang declaration. Some commentators have suggested that this month’s summit between the two Koreas will promote dialogue between the USA and North Korea and may lead to a second meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. After all, Moon Jae-in says that he has brought with him to America another message from the North Korean leader to the US President, which contains a road map for the denuclearisation process, and requests that America make some concessions in return.

It will become clear how accurate that forecast is when we see what happens during the South Korean President’s visit to the USA or how much importance the North Korean issue is given in the current meeting of the UN General Assembly. As yet, in drawing conclusions from the summit it is best to focus on what has definitely already been achieved- or at least on the probable achievements.

Firstly, even before the summit, on 14 September, the Kaesong joint liaison office was finally opened, a month later than planned. One of the reasons for the delay was the UN Security Council sanctions – the supply of the petrol products and electricity required in order for the office to function could have been interpreted as a breach of the sanctions. In answer to that question, Washington has stated that it will look into the issue in the near future.

The office is intended to “facilitate trade and political contacts between North and South Korea, support contacts between individuals, and provide convenient conditions for authorised persons to travel across the border.”

Admittedly, it is still unclear how the office will work – after all, it is no coincidence that, commenting on the opening, a representative of the US Department of State quoted South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s statement that an improvement in relations between North and South Korea is impossible without a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

Secondly, in October South Korea will host “Autumn has Arrived”- concerts by North Korean performing arts ensembles. The two countries agreed to arrange these concerts back in April, when South Korean performers gave concerts called “Spring is Coming” in Pyongyang. According to the ministry responsible for the event, there will be two concerts – one in Seoul and one in a provincial city.

Thirdly, on September 11, the South Korean government presented a draft law on the ratification of the Panmunjom Declaration in the National Assembly: this law would not only ratify the Declaration but also set out guiding principles for improving relations between the two Koreas and develop cooperation. The document states that a budget of 418.5 million dollars will be required for the planned joint projects.

Fourthly, talks on restoration works in the DMZ and the opening of a centre for reunions between members of divided families will start as early as the end of September.

The centre for the reunions was built way back in 2008, but has not been used for a long time. Some 50 million dollars were spent on its construction. This 12-storey building, with one basement floor, has more than 200 rooms, and was designed to allow up to a thousand people to take part in meetings or reunions, but, as yet, it is not suitable for use as accommodation. Since the building was completed, it has been used for only one reunion between members of divided families, in October 2015. The building is currently in need of a full-scale renovation if it is be used for its initial purpose, but this work would require all the construction materials to be brought in through North Korea, and therefore talks need to be held with the USA to resolve a number of sanctions-related issues.

As we have seen, the results of the summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in may disappoint those who, optimistically, had hoped for more, but the sceptics – who expected to see ceremonial events and “feelgood” proposals of the type normally adopted in such summits, rather than any concrete progress- have also been proved wrong. Yes, it is an important step forwards, but we will have to see what the next steps will be, and pay close attention to how the Korean issue is dealt with in the UN General Assembly – and to the results of the summit between the US and South Korean presidents.

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”.