Did President Moon break the deadlock?
The US State Department announced on Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang on Sunday as part of an Asian tour in which he will visit Japan, China and South Korea. This raises the question: Did President Moon break the deadlock that has been halting progress in nuclear talks between the US and the DPRK? The obvious answer would be yes, the talks are back on and Trump has been talking up his relationship with Chairman Kim Jong Un, even using language that could be considered… odd, referencing their friendship as ‘falling in love’. These outbursts from the President have been garnering plenty of media attention in recent days, however they point to a strong will by Trump that these talks have been successful, at least in building trust between himself and Chairman Kim Jong Un, but will that translate into fruitful negotiations?
Kim Jong Un meets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Lets get one thing straight, Donald Trump has an incentive to frame any progress, however small, as a win for his administration. The November mid-term elections are imminent and a significant victory in Korea would provide him with momentum which he can convert in republican votes. That explains his onslaught of praise for Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un that we have seen since their meeting, he cannot risk souring relations so close to an election and so his account of the negotiations, may not be the most unbiased. The Secretary of State’s visit to Pyongyang is likely an initial step towards a second summit between Chairman Kim and President Trump, another symbolic ‘win’ for the US administration. However, with all of the summits, meetings and working-level talks, what has actually been achieved?
1) Panmunjom Declaration: The first major diplomatic meeting between the DPRK and one of it’s adversaries was the meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong un and Panmunjom where the first, and so far most significant agreement was made. Whilst it contained major inter-korean agreements concerning lowered military tensions, family reunions and political and economic cooperation, it was notably lacking in concrete steps towards major denuclearisation, only including a clause in which both sides pledged to denuclearise the entire Korean peninsula.
2) Singapore Joint Declaration: The first joint declaration between the US and the DPRK called for normalisation of diplomatic relations between the states, the return of US military remains from the Korean War and the building of a peace regime on the peninsula. With regards to denuclearisation, the declaration only reaffirmed commitment to the Panmunjom declaration, still not providing any concrete route forward.
3) Pyongyang Declaration: The third meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un led to numerous agreements on inter-korean issues, but still no concrete steps forward which would lead to the denuclearisation of the peninsula. The most significant steps were the closure of a rocket engine testing site and a promise to close the Yongbyon nuclear development facility if the US responded with ‘reciprocal’ measures.
Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in at a diplomatic meeting
The outcome of all of these talks, whilst hugely symbolic, haven’t seen any major steps towards denuclearisation, the meeting in Pyongyang was an attempt to break the deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang. It may seem as though it was a success with Mike Pompeo visiting Pyongyang after a similar visit being cancelled last month, and a second summit with Trump on the horizon, it’s worth bearing in mind that no solid commitment has been made yet, by either side. Trump showed at the last summit that he was willing to make concessions on behalf of the US and it’s allies without equal concessions from Pyongyang. Postponing the joint-military-exercises at the Singapore summit was a shocking move which played very well for Beijing and the DPRK which saw the wargames as aggressive and provocative. Perhaps a second summit will see more sudden concessions from Trump, or maybe a real breakthrough will be made. However the issue remains that, at least as far as the public knows, no agreement has been made on how or when denuclearisation will occur in Korea. As long as this ‘smoke and mirrors diplomacy’ continues, the chances of a significant breakthrough on the nuclear issue remain slim, irrespective of the pomp and ceremony surrounding these hugely optics-centred summits.