We cannot deny the impression left by the April 27 summit between the leaders of North and South Korea that it gave priority to reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul instead of on what was the most important issue at stake: North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Still, the shift toward denuclearization that has, at long last, begun, must in no way be stopped.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at Panmunjom village along the Military Demarcation Line, and following hours-long talks released the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.
The summit was touted as an event that would contribute to a smooth lead-up to the U.S.-North Korea summit set to take place by June. As Kim was accompanied to the South by North Korean diplomats and military officials, it was highly anticipated that a bold decision over the nuclear issue would be made at Kim's meeting with Moon.
However, the Panmunjom Declaration only went so far as to state that North and South Korea "confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula." In a joint press conference held following the summit, Kim emphasized the importance of improving North-South relations and building a new future for the Korean people, but did not touch on the nuclear issue.
"A nuclear-free Korean Peninsula" is an expression that was selected out of consideration for North Korea, which sees South Korea's position under the U.S. nuclear umbrella as problematic. The South Korean government explained that a realistic method that takes into account the standpoints of the U.S. and North Korea will be deliberated. Depending on the direction the discussions take, however, a path may open up to the reduction of U.S. troops based in South Korea or the withdrawal of the U.S. military altogether.
Perhaps North and South Korea kept the joint statement to an agreement in principle because of the impending summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, but it is unfortunate that specific actions that will be taken by North Korea going forward were not incorporated into the declaration.
Meanwhile, the Panmunjom Declaration strikingly stated, "During this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice, South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime."
A joint statement signed at the 2007 Inter-Korean summit by then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun included a provision that said, "The South and the North share the wish to terminate the existing armistice regime and to build a permanent peace regime, and cooperate to pursue issues related to declaring the end of the Korean War by holding on the Korean Peninsula, a Three or Four party summit of directly-related sides." The Korean War armistice was signed by United Nations forces led by the U.S. and the North Korean and Chinese militaries. South Korea objected to the armistice and refused to sign it, but the armistice concerned the entire Korean Peninsula.
The transformation of the armistice agreement into a formal end to the war would contribute greatly to stability in Northeast Asia, including Japan. That Kim and Moon set the end of this year as the deadline for declaring the war's end likely means that North Korea will simultaneously work toward denuclearization this year.
If that is indeed the case, there is all the more reason for Japan and Russia to be included in the discussions. North Korea's nuclear program not only affects whether the North and South can officially end the Korean War, but has a great impact on security in the entire region. Seoul must reconsider the importance of multi-party talks toward building peace in Northeast Asia.
A spirit of North-South reconciliation was emphasized throughout the summit. Kim crossed the Military Demarcation Line on foot, making history as the first North Korean leader to enter South Korea, where Moon was waiting. After signing the Panmunjom Declaration, the two leaders hugged.
It was odd, however, that Moon had only accolades for Kim, praising his courage and determination, despite the fact that Kim is the very person responsible for the development of the North's nuclear program.
U.S. President Trump was happy with the North-South summit, tweeting that "good things are happening" on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is likely to take a conciliatory approach for the time being, as it aspires to a successful North Korea-U.S. summit. South Korean President Moon, meanwhile, is determined never to allow another crisis to occur on the peninsula.
Pyongyang and Seoul have had a history of reaching and scrapping agreements. In 1972, the two governments signed the July 4 Joint Communique, and in 1992, the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but neither of them were instituted completely.
Because of this past between the two governments, the Moon administration made an effort to focus on cooperation with the U.S. this time around. The South Korean government has also indicated its willingness to collaborate with neighboring countries such as China and Japan. To ensure that the Panmunjom Declaration is put into practice, the South Korean government must place an emphasis on cooperation with the international community. Consistent implementation of the declaration will help promote discussion on North Korea's denuclearization at the Kim-Trump summit.
There has been a mix of views offered by observers, with some saying that North Korea will not give up its status as a nuclear state and will merely negotiate the reduction of weapons with the U.S., while others predict a bold decision by North Korea, including the abandonment of all nuclear weapons.
Regardless, all countries concerned view the North-South summit and the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit as a chance to move toward a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. It would be unwise to promote excessive reconciliation policies now, when the North-South accord has yet to be adequately fulfilled, but this is the time to pour efforts into building a relationship of trust.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that he welcomed the outcome of the North-South summit, describing it as "earnest discussion on denuclearization and other issues that was a move toward the comprehensive resolution of various challenges surrounding North Korea," but did not critique the specific contents of the summit or the joint declaration. Japan must once again consider the role it should take to achieve peace and stability in Northeast Asia.