For the first time in eleven years, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet on April 27, 2018. The Inter-Korean Summit is planned to take place at Peace House, which is located in the South Korean portion of the Joint Security Area, making Kim Jong-un the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea since the Korea War. This is no small gesture for Kim Jong-un. After all, there were only two other inter-Korean summits since the ceasefire between the two Koreas in 1953: the first one in 2000 and the second in 2007, both of which took place in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
The situation is quite a turnaround from the tension that surrounded Korean peninsula upon President Trump’s position in August 2017 that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury” if it endangered the United States with its nuclear weapons program, in the aftermath of North Korea’s test-launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the end of last year. In fact, South Korea confirmed on April 18, 2018, that there have been talks of negotiating a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, bringing an end to the military conflict that has lasted for over sixty years.
This atmosphere of peace started with North Korea’s decision in February to attend the PyeongChang Winter Olympics taking place in South Korea, followed by the announcement that the North Korean and the South Korean delegations will march under one flag in the opening ceremony. One of the highlights of the Olympic Games undoubtedly included the addition of North Korean athletes to the South Korean women’s hockey team, all of which appeared to suggest that peace may well be on its way on the Korean peninsula.
Whatever the true motivation may be behind the grand gestures, Kim Jong-un has clearly expressed his willingness to come to the negotiation table. In his trip last month, the first that he has taken outside the country since assuming power, Kim Jong-un had a secret meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, in which he affirmed his willingness to talk to the South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well as President Trump.
While it is too soon to jump to any conclusions, the initial outlook at the very least appears to be optimistic. A delegation of South Korean envoys, led by Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, spent two days in Pyongyang in preparation for the summit, during which they met with Kim Jong-un for more than four hours and discussed important issues including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At the ruling party meeting on April 21, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea no longer needed to test nuclear weapons or ICBMs and that they would close the nuclear testing site to transparently guarantee their progress in this regard. Kim Jong-un furthermore announced that the party will shift its focus entirely to economic development, based on which commentators suspect that the extent of economic cooperation between North Korea and South Korea and the United States will be one of the main issues of contention at the upcoming summits. Furthermore, North Korea has dropped its demand that the United States withdraw its troops from South Korea as a condition for denuclearization, yet another significant step towards peace on the peninsula.
However, the United States government and many political commentators remain skeptical. Most notably, Kim Jong-un’s recent announcement did not include a declaration of nuclear disarmament, only closing of a testing site, fueling the air of skepticism in the White House. As for North Korea’s proposal that it will no longer demand that the U.S. forces be withdrawn in exchange for denuclearization, the Trump administration is privately of the position that it is not a true concession, since the issue of withdrawal was never on the table.
In addition, this is not the first time that North Korea has promised to denuclearize in exchange for security guarantees or humanitarian aid. “As long as the U.S. is allied with the South, that would be considered a security threat,” argues Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Terry Branstad, U.S. Ambassador to China, expressed that he did not trust what Kim Jong-un has said regarding its nuclear weapons programme, given North Korea’s track record of going back on its pledge to denuclearize.
Although many concerns and tasks await, the upcoming Inter-Korean Summit undoubtedly will prove to be a momentous step that will transform the geopolitical situation in East Asia. Only time will tell whether the national leaders of our times will be able to reach an agreement that will change the course of history forever.
Janice Kim is a second year J.D. student at Columbia Law School. She received her B.A. in International Relations—Political Science from Wellesley College. Her past experience includes internship at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations.