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The Thaw Continues
The future of recently tepid DPRK-ROK relations rests on external factors
By Wen Qing | NO. 40-41 OCTOBER 4, 2018

Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, and Kim Jong Un, top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, wave to the welcoming crowd in Pyongyang on September 18 (XINHUA)

This year has seen the tension in the Korean Peninsula ease. The icy relationship between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) thawed significantly after DPRK leader Kim Jong Un proffered an olive branch to the ROK in his new-year speech.

Then in September, Moon Jae-in became the first ROK president to visit Pyongyang, capital of the DPRK, in 11 years.

During his visit from September 18 to 20, Moon met Kim for the third time. It was a journey that saw unusual hospitality.Moon was received at the airport by Kim himself, who is also Chairman of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, and his wife Ri Sol Ju, and given a 21-gun salute. Moon's senior press secretary Yoon Young-chan said it was a rare courtesy.

Consensus built

Moon came to the North with two main political tasks, further consolidating and improving the peace progress between the DPRK and the ROK achieved earlier this year and reigniting the stalled negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's scheduled visit to the DPRK due to "lack of progress in denuclearization," with the DPRK's official media blaming the United States for its prolonged pressure and military threat.

The pictures released by the media appear to show Kim and Moon embracing in a genial manner. Both looked eager to put on a positive show in a bid to reflect their determination to consolidate the upward trend of bilateral ties. The meeting ended with the signing of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration.

According to the document, the two countries will continue their efforts to beef up peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Kim and Moon agreed to end military hostility in the confrontation area, including the Demilitarized Zone. They also reached a consensus on eliminating all threats of war on the Peninsula.

Perhaps most importantly, the DPRK agreed to continue on its path to denuclearization. It undertook to permanently shut down Tongchang-ri, a test ground and rocket launch pad, and also expressed its willingness to continue with additional steps toward denuclearization. One such commitment was the destruction of the Nyongbyon nuclear facility. However, such commitments came with caveats, one being that the United States takes corresponding actions in line with the DPRK-U.S.

joint statement signed during the Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore on June 12.

"The DPRK's commitments are a clear response to the concerns of the international community. Such measures could inject a fresh lease of life to the process and act as a catalyst to break the deadlock with the United States," said Yang Xiyu, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies.

Meanwhile, the two leaders formulated practical measures to enhance economic interactions and collaboration in infrastructure building, environmental protection and other fields. They also agreed to hold more reunion events for families which were separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Chinese observers believe that the sustentative consensus will have a positive influence on the future relationship between the DPRK and the United States. Compared to the vague language of their two previous meetings, this time Kim and Moon seemed to have agreed on a concrete and ambitious program meant to tackle the soaring tensions since last year, said Lu Chao, Director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.

U.S. factor

The inter-Korea rapprochement won positive global reactions. When commenting on the Pyongyang summit between Kim and Moon, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, "China, as a close neighbor, always supports the efforts of the north and south of the Peninsula to improve their ties and push forward reconciliation and cooperation through dialogue and consultation."

Whether the encouraging trend can last ultimately depends on the attitude of the United States, Shi Yongming, an associate researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, told Beijing Review.

Pyongyang and Washington disagree on specific steps to realize denuclearization. The DPRK has demanded reciprocal measures at every stage in the process, while the United States insists that denuclearization is the precondition for all symbiotic measures. The United States flatly rules out the easing of crippling sanctions against the DPRK until the latter's nuclear program is fully and verifiably dismantled.

On the occasion of the latest Kim-Moon meeting, Pompeo said that the United States is ready to transform its relations with the DPRK immediately. However, the U.S. State Department said that the denuclearization of the DPRK has to come first before the U.S. side gives any corresponding reciprocal measures.

"The United States has long taken advantage of the nuclear issue to seek a strategic edge in the Peninsula in past decades. It is not strategically and mentally prepared for the DPRK's denuclearization and a peaceful and stable Korean Peninsula, because the U.S. side never really thinks about solving the issue," Shi said, referring to Washington's stubborn denuclearization first approach.

According to Shi, to really resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, there should be a complex and complete policy structure rather than a single denuclearization agreement. It should encompass an armistice agreement between the DPRK and the United States to officially declare the end the Korean War plus arrangements about the future of the Peninsula, such as reaching the denuclearization deal and establishing peace mechanisms. Due to lack of such systematic arrangements, the DPRK insists on reaching denuclearization in stages which are logical and measurable.

Astute political analysis always requires careful observations of not only words but also actions. By comparing policies and activities of the DPRK and the United States, it is clear that the U.S. side should adjust its strategy and make more efforts for substantial progress on this issue, Shi said.

Despite unresolved tensions and policy differences, the Pyongyang meeting between Kim and Moon is significant as the two sides have tried to set up the initial framework for the independent resolution of Peninsula issues. They showed eagerness to resolve substantial problems through bilateral interaction, rather than simply depending on the United States.

Moon has been much more active and the positive about seeking a resolution than his predecessors Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, Shi pointed out, adding that the core issue of Peninsula peace is the relationship between the two Korean countries. If the two sides could be handled well and a reasonable solution put forward, the role of the United States can be diminished to some extent, he said.

On the other hand, if Washington remains in its precarious orbit, the inter-Korea relationship will face new uncertainties, he warned.

Copyedited by Craig Crowther

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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