The ICAS Lectures


Inter-Korean Summit and Prospects for Peace on the Peninsula:
Insights and Outlook

Tong Kim

ICAS Fall Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security

The Northeast Asian Issues

October 10, 2007 Wednesday 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
National Press Club
Murrow Room, 13th Floor
529 14th Street NW
Washington DC 20045

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Tong Kim

Inter-Korean Summit and Prospects for Peace on the Peninsula:
Insights and Outlook

Tong Kim

President Roh Moo-hyun's three-day meeting with Chairman Kim Jong-il of North Korea has set a clearly irreversible course toward further improvement of North-South relations, peace and economic cooperation. From all indications it is likely the two Koreas will stay the course beyond the transfers of power in February 2008 in Seoul and January 2009 in Washington.

The joint declaration signed by both leaders at the end of their talks is consistent with the basic principles of the three previous landmark agreements including the June 15 summit statement of 2000, the basic agreement of 1992, and the July 4 joint statement of 1972.

The ultimate goal of North South dialogue remains the same today: to achieve national unification on their initiative through reconciliation and cooperation without external interferences, transcending the differences in ideology and system and not interfering with the internal affairs of the other side. Unification is a dream, and advocacy for complete unification is a political and rhetorical necessity for both Koreas given the psychological legacy of history.

The first two points of the new declaration out of the eight areas of its agreement -- reaffirm the political direction of mutual engagement and unification. In theory it is another significant step forward in moving toward unification, but only in theory. (In my view neither the North or the South is ready for unification. Kim Jong Il knows it is impossible to achieve unification under his terms. The South knows it's impossible to achieve a democratic unification through election or otherwise. The closest the two sides can come to unification would be the point where they can accept the format of "one nation, one state with two systems either in the name of confederation or a commonwealth that would last for an indefinite period of decades.")

For the impoverished North, the recent summit agreements on several economic projects -- such as construction of a shipbuilding facility, designation of a special economic zone along the West Sea, opening of a tourist flight path to Mount Baekdu, operation of railroad cargo trains for the Gaeseong industrial complex, allowing free passage of commercial ships in the West Sea, investment by South Korea for infrastructure and development of natural resources in the North are a cautious welcome. "Cautious" because the North Korean leadership does not want "opening" that might lead to undermining the stability of its power system or weakening its control over the population.

For the South, the biggest question is where the government is going to find the resources to carry out these projects of magnitude. To solely rely on the private business sector will not work, because business does not invest unless it sees an opportunity for profit. Yet, for President Roh, the summit is paying off handsomely: his approval rate went up by more than 10 % to 40 -- 50 % depending on polls. Seventy-four percent of the South Korean people surveyed in a poll thought the summit produced "good results."

The summit also agreed to hold more "normal" reunions of displaced families, promote more exchanges and cooperation in several fields, including sports, education and culture, as well as coordinating diplomatic efforts in the international arena.

For immediate security concerns, the summit declaration focuses on politically more pressing and militarily more achievable goals such as tension reduction and prevention of recurrence of armed conflicts on the West Sea as delineated by Point 3 where costly naval battles were fought over fishing rights along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the recent years. NLL is not exactly a border line that has been accepted by both sides. Unlike the military demarcation line (MDL), it was not agreed upon by the Armistice Agreement of 1953. This time the summit agreed to establish a common fishery zone around the disputed NLL as a pragmatic and face saving temporary solution to the sensitive issue that has been a sticking point in inter-Korean military talks. A defense ministerial meeting will take place next month to discuss the details for this agreement and to support other economic projects. This will be only a second such meeting since 2000.

Peace Regime and Denuclearization

Perhaps most important to the interests of the participants in the Six Party Talks, including the United States, is a two part paragraph of Point 4 of the declaration that discusses the issues of ending war and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.

Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong Il expressed their shared view on terminating the current Armistice Agreement and building a durable peace regime to replace the truce arrangement, and declaring an end to the technical state of the Korean War by a summit meeting among "three or four" parties directly involved.

On the North Korean nuclear issue, the declaration had no specific mention of Kim Jong-il's commitment to denuclearization something deemed necessary to remove doubts that the North would give up its nuclear weapons at the end. This section of the declaration simply contains a clause stating that both sides will work together for the smooth implementation of the Sept. 19 joint statement and the Feb. 13 agreement of the six party talks to resolve the nuclear issue on the peninsula.''

Critics quickly pointed out the relevant statement is not good enough, as there remains the question of transparency and completeness with respect to a declaration of nuclear programs to be filed by North Korea as well as the question of intent for the North to remove or eliminate the plutonium and nuclear devices that the North Koreans are hiding.

However, President Roh said the North Korean leader is firmly committed to peace and denuclearization. According to the South Korean officials who attended the summit, Kim Jong Il was satisfied with the October 3 agreement of the six party talks regarding the disablement of the Youngbyun nuclear facilities to be completed by the end of this year.

During the summit discussion the North Korean leader even called in vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, the North Korean chief negotiator to the nuclear talks, to give a debriefing on the latest six party accord at the presence of the South Korean president. Kim said to Roh, "Let's receive the report together." It is also interesting to note that Kim Key-gwan and his immediate boss Kang Suk-ju, first vice foreign minister, were seated at the head table at the luncheon hosted by Kim Jong Il for Roh and his party. (Hangyerae October 5 interview with Moon Chong-in and Jung Se-hyun)

Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in my view is not a matter of direction but time. And I still suspect it probably won't come through until after the Bush administration leaves.

The reason is simple: no desirable level of trust has been built between Kim Jong-il and Bush in addition to a long history of hostile relations between the two countries. A six party ministerial meeting that will likely follow a significant progress in the disablement process will provide an opportunity for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her DPRK counterpart to have a bilateral meeting in Beijing. If she goes to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, as Madeline Albright did following the first North South summit in 2000, it will greatly contribute to building the DPRK's trust in the United States.

Format and Sequence of Peace Process

Now I would like to concentrate my discussion on the first part of Point 4: that is a peace process that can end the Korean War and produce a new peace agreement.

There seems to be no consensus within the Korean government with respect to how it wants to approach the issue. When the declaration referred to "three or four parties," several impatient pundits immediately speculated on the exclusion of China, a major participant in the Korean War and a signatory to the Armistice Agreement. Based on observations of North Korea's ambivalent relationship with China, many guessed it was Kim Jong Il who wanted to exclude China.

From my experience with the Four Party Talks in Geneva during the late 1990's, it is true that the North Koreans tend to think that China should not matter in a peace regime, as it keeps no troops in the North. It is also true that they don't seem to appreciate the fact that they were rescued by the Chinese during the war. The North Koreans seem to regard China's assistance as a humiliation to their pride in self-reliance.

The ROK foreign minister said he thought China should be included and therefore the declaration of ending the war will likely be made by a four party summit. In contrast, the ROK ministry of unification has long preferred a two plus two format a formula that prefers a peace arrangement to be negotiated between the North and the South for endorsement and support by the United States and China. As we can see, the unification ministry's approach is inclined to reflect the concept of "Between Us the Same Nation" that the North stresses in its relationship with the South. There has been a continuing bureaucratic struggle between the foreign and unification ministries over the turf and direction of Seoul's policy toward the North and the United States. While the foreign ministry is internationalist and more mindful of U.S. positions, as it should be, the unification ministry tends to be more nationalistic in a unique inter-Korean political relationship in which neither the North nor the South regards the other as a separate state but a separate system of one Korea.

According to President Roh's security adviser, the flexible number of "three or four" was adopted in the text as the result of Roh's explanation to Kim Jong Il about Bush's suggestion in Hanoi in last November and a follow up discussion in Sydney last month that the three leaders of the two Koreas and the United States can sign a declaration to end the Korean War. Reportedly, Kim Jong Il who always wanted to improve his relations with the United States liked the idea, and said to Roh, "See what you can do on this. I would appreciate your effort."

However, the likely scope of participants will be four, including China, to negotiate a peace arrangement. President Bush made it clear during his APEC summit with President Roh that the United States is ready to sign a peace treaty only after Kim Jong Il's nuclear abandonment. To me, the Roh government had overestimated Bush's comment on ending the war at the Hanoi meeting that came only a few weeks after Bush's devastating defeat in the mid-term elections, without which there would have been no abrupt shift in policy towards North Korea.

From the beginning, any inter-Korean agreement alone would not be able to practically and legally end the Korean War without the participation of the United States and China. To negotiate a peace agreement, either in parallel with the denuclearization process or after the resolution of the nuclear issue will require a long span of time. The summit declaration states the three elements for the peace process in the order of termination of the armistice, building a peace regime, and declaring an end to the war.

In this context, some policy thinkers in Seoul are now raising the possibility of flexible sequencing. A declaration of ending war may precede the undertaking of talks for a peace arrangement, with a provision that the armistice regime will remain valid until it is replaced by a permanent peace regime. Ambassador Vershbow said last week a declaration to end the war will not come before the end of this year. Minster Song echoed this prospect by saying that his government will not push this forward for the sake of a legacy it wants to leave behind during the short remainder of the Roh government's term. The format of a peace regime also can vary from a multilateral peace agreement to a bilateral peace treaty depending on the state of relationship among the concerned parties. There is no doubt that North Korea wants normalization, and the United States and South Korea want complete denuclearization, not a partial solution that may allow the North to keep the nuclear weapons it has developed. In the meantime, South Korea wants spurred momentum on the whole process of peace and co-prosperity, by raising a joint proposal with the North for a peace agreement.

A peace treaty with the United States can be concluded after or simultaneously with diplomatic normalization, which also may come at the time or after North Korea's complete denuclearization. As agreed in the 9/19 joint statement of 2005 and the 2/13 agreement of 2007, it would be a natural course for the parties concerned to proceed negotiations of all three key relevant issues --- denuclearization, a peace regime, and normalization. Of course, the discussion of a peace regime and normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea directly depend on the progress or the completion of the denuclearization process.

It is true that several important elements of the previous commitments by North Korea were never carried out. But the recent summit reinvigorated the spirit of mutual effort to achieve peace, co-prosperity and unification along the same lines. Although much more detailed than the joint declaration of the first summit in June 2000, the new declaration still has some ambiguous areas and missing pieces that need to be worked out at the levels of prime ministers and responsible departmental ministers.

One needs to read the eight-point declaration -- skillfully crafted to cover a wide range of issues from a peace regime to reunions of displaced families -- with a grain of salt and an understanding that a joint statement of this nature is rhetorically comprehensive but substantively vague in most cases.

While there were no surprises from the second summit, I want to share a number of interesting things that caught my attention during the interactions between the leaders of the two Koreas.

The Korean press noticed that President Roh had been received with a lesser degree of protocol and hospitality than former President Kim Dae-jung in 2000. However, the choreography of Kim Jong-il's welcoming and hosting Roh was quite appropriate in my view.

Formality is an important ingredient in diplomacy and it often conveys a message -- positive or negative. But I don't think we should be hung up on our impression of the formality of this summit. We can analyze the rationale behind the formality, while focusing on the substance of the talks.

Kim appeared chilly at Roh's arrival reception but warmed up on the second day. Kim did not show up at the Arirang mass game performance or a return dinner hosted by Roh, as he did during Albright's visit. One observer said Kim could not look enthused or happy because of his anxiety about whether the United States would approve the October 3 agreement from the six party talks, as he had not yet been briefed on the result.

Kim proposed a one-day extension of Roh's stay in Pyongyang, but Roh politely declined and Kim retracted his offer at the conclusion of the second meeting of their talks, saying, We have fully discussed the issues, and there are people waiting for you in Seoul.'' Apparently Kim and Roh had a good exchange of conflicting views on the concept of "between us the same nation," with Roh saying there is no country in the world even the United States that can rely on self-reliance without cooperating with other countries. Roh added the South cannot help the North if the United States opposes. Roh's people said Kim Jong Il accepted the point.

North Korea's emphasis on between us the same nation'' is in a reflection of North Korea's strong sense of isolationist independence free from the influence of the outside world. But it also can be interpreted as an expression of the North's reliance on economic aid from the South.

Until the summit, North Korea always maintained that the nuclear issue or a peace regime is a matter to resolve with the United States. One contradictory change that came out of the summit is that now the North not only wants to include the South, but it also wants to use its improved relations with the South in dealing with the United States to its advantage.

Kim Jong-il's meeting with Roh was the second inter-Korean summit, but his first one with President Kim Dae-jung was truly historic as it was the first summit since the division of Korea. Roh has only five months of his term left and he is four or five years younger than the leader of North Korea, which still preserves a strong Confucian tradition of respecting elders and loyally following the ruler. I might add in old Korean culture a solemn look is also a sign of seriousness and dignity. "Only fools smile or laugh."

I remember a quote from a senior official during the Clinton administration. A summit is a success, if the President is happy with his meeting.'' President Roh seemed moved by his visit with his North Korean counterpart beyond the level of satisfaction.

It was also interesting that as reclusive Kim Jong-il appeared on television, he was instantly dissected in the media over suspicions of diabetes, heart problems and related health issues.

The next day he tried to dispel the widely spread suspicion on his health, saying, I am not a patient... I have no problems with diabetes or heart trouble.'' The participants in the farewell luncheon hosted by Kim Jong Il said he looked healthy and he was noticed drinking five glasses of wine.

President Roh brought to light some of the misgivings that Kim Jong-il has on an alternate path for his country. For example, Roh said Kim has doubts of reform and opening,'' and added that the South should refrain from politicizing the Gaeseong Industrial Complex as a basis for reforming and opening the North.

Roh also revealed that he felt a barrier between the North and the South due to a lack of trust. He said the North has suspicions about the South. The North still does not fully trust the South or the United States.

When former Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang, Chairman Kim Jong-il questioned the real meaning of reform and opening.'' He said, What do you mean by 'opening'? I asked the same question to Putin.'' It was clear to me that he was not ready to open his country soon. He is still not ready. On the other hand, there was no mention of the human rights issue or the POWs from the South. As both sides agreed to a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the other side, it was difficult to raise the issue of human rights. The North insisted that the POWs should be treated as part of the separated family issue.

In this connection, the North should not interfere with South Korean politics, by criticizing the opposition Grand National Party in a vain attempt to influence the outcome of the December presidential election. Disagreements within the South is an internal matter for the people of the South to resolve, and North Korean interference can only complicate the process of peace and economic cooperation with the North.

In conclusion, during the summit meetings and talks, I think it was Roh, a persistent debater, who did most of the talking as he apparently took the initiative in the summit, offering several attractive economic packages to Kim Jong-il. One aid to President Roh said Roh talked somewhat more than Kim did. Kim Jong Il seemed to have been fully prepared for the summit. And Kim accepted most of Roh's proposals in return for political and security assurance.

The summit was a job well done by President Roh for a change.

Tong Kim is former U.S. State Department interpreter, now a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University, and a fellow of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University .

This page last updated 10/12/2007 jdb

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