The ICAS Lectures


Evaluation of the Summit Meeting Between
R.O.K. President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un

Larry Niksch

ICAS Spring Symposium Special

April 30, 2018 Monday 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
US Senate Dirksen Office Building Room SD 562
First Street NE and Constitution Ave
Washington, DC 20002

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry Niksch

Evaluation of the Summit Meeting Between
R.O.K. President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un

Larry Niksch

On two points, one cannot argue. First, that the atmosphere and symbolism of the summit meeting was positive. Second, Kim Jong-un appears to have made a number of tactical policy changes that have drawn positive reactions from R.O.K. and U.S. officials. These include (according to South Korean officials) a promise to no longer demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, a promise to shut down his nuclear test facility, a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, and now reportedly a promise to release the three Americans imprisoned in North Korea. This also includes Kim’s reported offers to meet with President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe.

Moreover, the Moon-Kim Panmunjom Declaration contains several positive points. The “common goal” of “complete denuclearization,” while lacking in details, still represents a change from North Korea’s long-standing policy of refusing to discuss the nuclear issue with South Korea, contending instead that the nuclear issue only could be negotiated between North Korea and the United States. The agreement in the Declaration to negotiate a settlement of the dispute over the South Korean islands off North Korea’s west coast is, it seems to me, a positive commitment if implemented in that spirit.

The agreement “to encourage” more “cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels” could transform the South-North relationship if carried out on a meaningful scale and if the result is many more North Koreans coming to South Korea.

However, alongside these positive policy changes and commitments, the Panmunjom Declaration contains several clauses, which raise questions about their effect on the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance and North Korea’s willingness to change its more fundamental policies.

Family Reunions

For example, the agreement to encourage exchanges, visits, contacts, etc. is contrasted with a more reserved agreement regarding reuniting separated Korean families. That agreement, instead, follows the past pattern of Red Cross meetings followed by a single family reunion, this time scheduled for August 15, 2018. The past pattern of single family reunions has been followed, often quickly, by intensified North Korean hostility to South Korea. The result usually has been several years before another agreement for a single reunion. It seems to me disappointing that President Moon didn’t propose and secure an agreement for a multiple number of family reunions over a period of three to five years.

Ceasing Hostile Acts

The Declaration stipulates that the two governments will “completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air, and sea that are the source of military tension and conflict.” President Moon needs to clarify the meaning of this to President Trump. Kim Jong-un’s reported promise to end North Korea’s demand for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea has been greeted positively. However, in recent years North Korea has put more emphasis on a demand for cancellations and restrictions on U.S. military operations. North Korea has declared as “hostile acts” and a “nuclear threat” major operations of U.S. forces in South Korea. Pyongyang has included under these headings R.O.K.-U.S. joint military exercises, U.S. rotational deployments of forces and advanced weaponry into South Korea for training (U.S. F-15s from Okinawa for example), and U.S. military exercises off shore of the Korean peninsula (U.S. naval exercises and especially U.S. heavy bomber exercises). President Moon last September asked President Trump to increase heavy bomber exercises in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test.

So, a key question is: Is Kim Jong-un’s promise to drop the demand for a U.S. troop withdrawal a fundamental policy change, or is it a tactical shift toward achieving cancellations and major restrictions on U.S. military operations in and offshore of South Korea? North Korean officials no doubt are aware of statements by former U.S. military officials in public forums that if U.S. forces in South Korea cannot train adequately, the U.S. military would have to move them to some other location where they can train. I have been told on good authority that U.S. commanders in South Korea have made similar statements to their staffs.

The other key question is: Does this commitment to cease “all hostile acts” include a South Korean commitment to cancel and/or limit these operations of U.S. forces? The first test of this could come in August 2018 when one of the two major R.O.K.-U.S. military exercises is scheduled to take place. If President Moon cancels or sharply limits the exercise and cites the Panmunjom Declaration as justification, this would create a negative turn in the alliance and no doubt would produce a significant U.S. policy reaction. Moreover, if Kim Jong-un starts to demand a cancellation of the August exercise, this would indicate a significant limit to his willingness to improve relations with South Korea and the United States. The one exception to these negative outcomes would be major progress on the denuclearization issue before August that could justify limits on the exercise. The prospective Trump-Kim summit may indicate whether that kind of progress would be possible.

A Peace Regime

The Declaration calls on South and North Korea to establish a “peace regime” to bring “an end to the current unnatural state of armistice.” Establishing a peace regime “must not be delayed any further.” This clause also calls on Seoul and Pyongyang to seek meetings with the United States and possibly China aimed at establishing a “permanent and solid peace regime.”

It seems to me that this clause has at least three important meanings. The first is that by citing a “peace regime” rather than a “peace treaty,” President Moon and Kim Jong-un are signaling that they could declare jointly a formal end to the Korean War based on implementation of several of the other strictly North-South clauses of the Panmunjom Declaration. Second, while consulting with the United States, they also could dismantle major elements of the 1953 armistice agreement. This could include changing the status of the demilitarized zone and jointly requesting the U.N. Security Council to terminate the United Nations Command (headed by the U.S. Commander in South Korea). The United States would have difficulty in opposing such a joint request.

Third, the Declaration’s call for no further delay suggests that President Moon may have accepted Kim Jong-un’s position (a long-standing North Korean position) that a “peace regime” or even a peace treaty can precede a full agreement on denuclearization. This last implication would run contrary to the long-standing U.S. position that successful denuclearization of North Korea must come before negotiating a “peace treaty” with North Korea.

Thus, by eschewing the traditional model of a peace treaty to replace the armistice and substituting a “peace regime,” Kim Jong-un may have succeeded in creating a scenario of easing the United States out of a settlement of the Korean War in a way that would create new questions about the status of U.S. military forces in South Korea. The Moon-Kim promise to consult with the United States and possibly China could mean only to secure from them (and possibly Russia and Japan) a guarantee of support for a North-South peace regime.

Implement 2007 Project Commitments

The Declaration’s agreement to “actively implement projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 declaration” represents a big potential commitment by President Moon. The 2007 commitments by then President Roh Moo-hyun amounted to nearly $10 billion in South Korean infrastructure projects for North Korea. If Seoul and Pyongyang go ahead with this in the near future, these kind of projects no doubt would violate current United Nations sanctions against North Korea. These are not the kind of “humanitarian aid projects” that the sanctions permit. The Trump Administration could be expected to oppose any near term move to begin these projects if U.N. sanctions are still in force. In 2007, the Bush Administration remained silent when President Roh made this commitment in Pyongyang. The Moon Administration should not believe that the Trump Administration would remain silent over projects that violated U.N. sanctions.


None of the tactical changes that Kim Jong-un has announced, however positive sounding, do not prevent him from carrying out the pledge in his New Years speech that North Korea in 2018 would begin building an arsenal of inter-continental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that could strike the United States. In order to demonstrate a willingness to rescind that pledge, Kim will have to agree to concrete principles that would govern a legitimate denuclearization process. That will be the true test of a Trump-Kim summit meeting.

This page last updated May 11, 2018 jdb