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Korean Summit: Unrealistic expectations could derail ambitious agenda

Korean Summit: Unrealistic expectations could derail ambitious agenda

Today’s meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in is undoubtedly a significant achievement for the South Korean president and his policy of engagement with the North. The historic and highly symbolic event is the first inter-Korean summit to take place on South Korean soil, representing an apparent dramatic turn-around in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang following years of escalating tensions and sabre-rattling on the peninsula.

Once the cameras are switched off and the enthusiasm over today’s summit declaration – which promises a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula – subsides, both sides will need to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Although we expect some progress over the coming months, particularly if pragmatism prevails, the prospects of North Korea dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals remain as dim as ever.

Kim wants his cake and eat it too

We continue to maintain our long-standing view that North Korea under Kim Jong-un has no intention of unilaterally denuclearising without the kind of security guarantees South Korea and the US cannot realistically provide. We therefore believe Pyongyang’s sudden charm offensive is designed to extract as many economic and security concessions as possible while sacrificing as little as it can in return. In contrast, Seoul and Washington have long insisted that any negotiations must result in the verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea.

Today’s summit declaration spells out an ambitious agenda for lasting peace on the peninsula, but ultimately offers little that is new. Similar statements accompanied the inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, but failed to deliver on their promises. The latest declaration does not change our view that a mismatch in expectations persists, and that it will almost certainly loom large over all subsequent negotiations.

Talks have the potential to drag on for years as South Korea and the US press the Kim regime to disarm, while the North bides its time – and offers limited concessions it can easily afford to give – in the hopes of weakening the allies’ resolve and negotiating a partial easing of sanctions or the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Any negotiations built on such wildly differing expectations are likely to falter and ultimately collapse, just as the Six-Party Talks did back in 2008.

The North’s recently announced freeze on nuclear and ballistic missile testing serves as a taste of things to come. The initiative, hailed as “big progress” by US President Trump, hardly represents an olive branch, given the reports of a tunnel collapse rendering the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site unusable. With this faux concession, Kim is abandoning a damaged facility that is already out of action. A freeze on ballistic missile testing – which does not by itself prevent the country from producing more ICBMs – can likewise be rescinded at any moment. Further similar gestures, which could plausibly even extend to the closure of other sites and the acceptance of limited on-site inspections, will likely abound over the coming months. 

Pragmatism and patience can deliver results

To ensure that any negotiations with Pyongyang result in lasting peace, both Moon and Trump will need to take two steps back before they can take one step forward. While denuclearisation can remain the ideal end goal, the two allies will need to adopt a pragmatic approach or risk negotiations collapsing months or years down the line.

Compromise solutions such as an indefinite freeze on testing and production; a halt to satellite launches that serve as a cover for missile tests; and negotiating a permanent limit to the size of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are all exceedingly difficult to achieve, fraught with risks and could eventually be reneged on by Pyongyang. However, unlike total unilateral nuclear disarmament, North Korea is at least likely to consider them – albeit for a hefty price. A face-saving solution of this kind would also allow all parties to walk away with an acceptable deal and claim victory.

As we noted last year, there are very few avenues for breaking the impasse on the Korean peninsula. A collapse of the North Korean economy or the toppling of the Kim dynasty are two equally unlikely outcomes. South Korea and the US putting denuclearisation on the backburner – and effectively recognising North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for now – is another. While we still see the insistence on unilateral denuclearisation and an eventual collapse of talks as the most likely outcome, the likelihood of compromise solution has increased slightly over the past several months.

Although the US and South Korea currently show a united front, insisting they will maintain “maximum pressure” on the North until it takes tangible steps towards denuclearisation, this has the potential to change once the difficult talks properly get underway. The optimism surrounding today’s summit means that there will be immense public pressure on policy makers in Seoul and Washington to deliver a deal. Any deal. Months and years of difficult negotiations could plausibly persuade the allies that even a limited compromise is better than risking a collapse of the talks. While a tough sell domestically, particularly for the Trump White House that until recently threatened Kim with “fire and fury”, quietly and begrudgingly giving North Korea a seat at the nuclear table is perhaps the only outcome that will ensure a lasting reduction in tensions.

Only the coming weeks will tell whether such pragmatism prevails.

By Miha Hribernik, Senior Asia Analyst

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