Kim Uses Summit to Revive Talks with Trump

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has wrapped up a 3-day visit to North Korea to meet his counterpart, Kim Jong Un.
In a joint declaration, the North has pledged to permanently dismantle its ballistic missile test site. It has also pledged to close a nuclear facility with certain conditions.
How should we evaluate thus summit and what can be expected to come out of it?
NHK World senior correspondent Kengo Okamoto provides some insight. He has been covering the Korean Peninsula for almost 20 years.

The Outcome of the Pyongyang Summit

I believe the North and the South need each other and have shared interests. That has brought them much closer together, and I think North Korea has made concessions on the denuclearization issue.

It has taken that step hoping the United States will agree to negotiate a declaration to formally end the Korean War and also provide security guarantees. That may have opened the way to Moon attending a cultural performance celebrating the North's 70th anniversary, as well as his unprecedented visit to Mt. Paektu. The mountain is considered sacred, especially by the Kim regime. Moon seems to have decided to fall into step with Kim, and Kim may think he has brought Moon on side.

What the North promised

The Pyongyang Declaration clearly noted that North Korea would "first" shut down "permanently" its missile engine test site and missile launch pad in Tongchang-ri. Such a pledge is rare for Pyongyang, which usually insists on the principle of simultaneous actions.

The North also agreed the facilities would be dismantled in the presence of an international group of experts, an apparent move to appease the United States. President Moon explained that this would be the complete, verifiable, and irreversible process the US has been seeking.

Kim Jong Un had already started dismantling the Tongchang-ri facilities in line with the promise he made to US President Donald Trump at their June summit. But he appears to have decided to take further action to convince those in the US who suspect he could easily rebuild the facility. He has said North Korea is also ready to dismantle the Nyongbyon nuclear complex if the US takes corresponding action. This appears to be a message to the US that it should move forward on a declaration to end the Korean War.

For a long time, North Korea avoided discussing nuclear issues with the South, insisting that the US was the negotiating partner. Now, it has promised in its declaration with South Korea that it will take concrete steps to halt nuclear development, with some conditions. This is the first time Pyongyang has made such a pledge in the history of inter-Korean talks.

Agreements on the military front

North Korea is a hard negotiator, especially on military issues. It is a garrison state that believes it is under siege, so persuading the military to take steps to reduce tensions is difficult. This time, however, it has agreed to a number of measures aimed at preventing armed conflict.

The two leaders have agreed to suspend large-scale military drills and set up buffer zones several-dozen-kilometers wide on land, at sea and in the air. That agreement is drawing criticism from hardliners in South Korea who say it disarms the South while the North is still nuclear capable. Senior officials in Moon's administration have said it is equivalent to a declaration ending the war. In fact, it may be aimed at creating the atmosphere for the US to do that.

Underlying North Korea's concessions

North Korea usually sticks to a give-and-take principle in negotiations, but this time was different. I think Kim Jong Un wanted the South Korean leader to be in his debt.

President Moon had two targets in this meeting. One was to remove the risks of triggering military conflict, and the other was to get Kim to initiate a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization process. Moon made substantial headway on both, and the two also agreed to start construction of cross-border roads and railways. This is Moon's strategy of offering the North economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization, similar to Trump's approach in the June summit.

I think Kim granted Moon's wishes hoping he would give more consideration to Pyongyang's position in mediating talks with the United States. Kim had earlier told Moon's envoy that he wanted denuclearization achieved before the end of Trump's first term in office. This shows he's pinning his hopes on Trump as the first US president to agree to meet him, allowing direct negotiations with the superpower.

Trump is now gearing up for midterm elections in November. Kim may be thinking Trump might agree to a second summit to bolster his position ahead of the elections.

Prospects for denuclearization talks

Trump has called the agreement reached at this latest inter-Korean summit "tremendous progress." All eyes are now on whether Trump signs on to the negotiations after hearing from Moon. He will note that the North is still not willing to submit a list of its nuclear facilities and weapons, as the US demanded.

Kim has agreed with the South that he will take the additional step of dismantling the Nyongbyon nuclear complex only if Washington takes corresponding action. US media report intelligence officials believe the North is continuing to enrich uranium at a secret location in the suburbs of Pyongyang.

They suspect North Korea is now capable of producing twice the amount of uranium it did at Nyongbyon. Another factor is that Moon may not be able to influence Trump. His administration may be wary of South Korea's closeness with the North. Moon decided to visit the sacred Mount Paektu on the final day of his 3-day visit. The mountain has been used by the Kims to deify their dynasty. Moon and Kim also confirmed in the declaration the principle of the Korean people's autonomy and self-determination. This is an agreement that they will not be influenced by the United States or other outside powers in managing their relations.

Moon repeatedly used the term "Korean people" during his visit, and called for unity between the two Koreas. Analysts will be watching how the US administration responds to Moon's stance, which could be viewed as too pro-Pyongyang.