The “historic” Kim-Moon meeting on April 27 in Panmunjom reversed the 5-year downward spiral of the Korean Peninsula situation, and also partially relieved the pressure of international sanctions on his regime.
Since the beginning of 2016, North Korea’s nuclear missile program has entered a “home stretch”. Its intensive missile tests have invited four harsher-than-ever sanction resolutions from the UN Security Council. Unilateral sanctions and a naval blockade have been constantly tightened by the Trump administration and its allies. The effects of international sanctions imposed at the end of 2016 are being felt. Over 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade has been cut off; domestic energy, medicine, and necessities are running short; many of its citizens working abroad have been repatriated; and channels for foreign exchange earnings are narrowing.
Pressed hard, the North Korean regime increased its efforts to complete “the great cause of strengthening the country with nuclear and rocket power”. Seeing the opportunity provided by the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, it decided to break international sanctions by improving its relations with South Korea, to push the US into direct dialogue. It sought to exchange its established nuclear missile power for diplomatic recognition and security assurances from the US.
For North Korea regime, the Kim-Moon meeting was only one in a succession of steps leading to fundamental adjustment. Before crossing over the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), Kim Jeong-un visited Beijing at the end of March and sent his foreign minister Ri Yong-ho to Moscow in early April, and gained security assurances and political backing from them for his position before negotiating with South Korea and the American leaders.
On April 20, the DPRK’s ruling Worker's Party convened the 3rd plenary session of its 7th Congress and announced immediately it would suspend nuclear and missile tests and scrap its nuclear test site and instead concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy and markedly improving its peoples’ standard of living. That means North Korea will officially change its military-first politics as well as driving both nuclear and economic advancement in parallel. Before such a shift, domestic public opinion must first be prepared.
The joint declaration signed by Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in focuses on North-South reconciliation rather than denuclearization. But this shouldn’t be a surprise since nuclear denuclearization is the core issue between North Korea and the US and a relaxation in tensions between the two Koreas could pave way for resurrecting the process to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. If Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in’s common goal of complete denuclearization is trustworthy, it could be regarded as the start of a process of verifiable implementation.
The real hard work lies ahead. Since the Kim Jong-un really needs to create an “international environment favorable” for North Korea’s regime and President Donald Trump urgently needs more visible foreign policy achievements ahead of American mid-term elections, they both have strong reasons to reach some agreement which can be called a “historical breakthrough”.
The upcoming Kim-Trump summit might be the start of a comprehensive peace process along the following lines:
Step 1, North Korea promises to suspend and abandon its nuclear and missile programs in a verifiable manner, and the US gives a commitment not to violate North Korea’s security and to eventually normalize political and economic relations;
Step 2, North Korea starts to dismantle its nuclear weapons and facilities under international oversight，with third party guarantees, and in exchange international sanctions against North Korea are gradually eased;
Step 3, North Korea and the US sign a letter of intent to establish diplomatic relations and even a non-aggression pact, and set up representative offices in each other’s capital, and agree to resume the multilateral talks involving North Korea, South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan;
Step 4, The Peninsula nuclear issue is solved and relations among the various parties are normalized, and a truce transitions to peace.
However, this would be a long and arduous march, with a high risks of failure in implementing the Kim-Moon and Kim-Trump summit consensuses. Whether denuclearization is complete and irreversible will remain a big question. It is quite impossible for North Korea to voluntarily destroy its nuclear technology documents and give up all its nuclear materials. Thus, it is still too early to relax.
As a signatory of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement and the chair-country of six-party talks, China should not be sidelined from any arrangement relating to the future of the Korean Peninsular.
Beijing should exert more of its influence, together with Moscow and Seoul, to encourage Pyongyang to take greater strides on economic construction to upgrade its peoples’ living standard, by providing direct assistance in line with UN Security Council resolutions.
China needs to choose the right time to intervene more in the ongoing negotiations among North Korea, South Korea, and the US, and reopen the six-party talks as early as possible. It may already be trying to do so. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has declared that at the invitation of DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Pyongyang from May 2 to 3.
China also needs to take the opportunity provided by the China-Japan-ROK meeting that is scheduled to be held in Tokyo on May 9, to reinvigorate regional cooperation in Northeast Asia to continue the momentum.