2018 opened era of detente on Korean Peninsula


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The year 2018 marked the beginning of a detente and peace-building on the Korean Peninsula, with the two Koreas seeking to improve ties and North Korea engaging the US in negotiating away its nuclear weapons program.

A thaw on the peninsula was a dramatic departure from exchanges of insults and threats over North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile tests, which drove the US and North Korea close to the brink of war only last year.

North Korea has conducted no nuclear or missile tests in 2018, and its leader Kim Jong-un sat down for three inter-Korean summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a first-ever summit with US President Donald Trump.

A conciliatory mood was rapidly created since Kim extended a rare olive branch to South Korea in his New Year’s speech by expressing his willingness to improve inter-Korean ties and send a North Korean delegation to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics held in February.

A flurry of diplomacy on the sidelines of the Olympics brought together leaders of the Koreas for the first time in 11 years. On April 27, they met at the border village of Panmunjom, where they committed to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. They also promised to improve inter-Korean ties, formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and establish a peace regime on the peninsula. 

South Korean soldiers patrol along a border fence in northwestern Gyeonggi Province (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The goodwill gestures by North Korea built momentum for the first-ever summit between leaders of the US and North Korea. In May, North Korea released three Americans who had been detained in the reclusive country and dismantled its major nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the presence of international reporters.

Then came Trump’s cancellation of the panned summit with North Korea, citing “tremendous anger and hostility” from the North. On May 26, Moon held a surprise second summit with Kim at the border village of Panmunjom to help put the summit back on track.

The world finally watched Trump and Kim hold their historic summit in Singapore on June 12 — which many saw as a result of Trump’s unconventional diplomacy, Kim’s determination to save his impoverished country from sanctions and Moon’s efforts to broker a meeting between the Cold War foes.

At the summit, Kim committed to working toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in return for a security guarantee from the US, though many remain skeptical over the deal. The countries also agreed to establish better relations and make efforts to build a peace regime on the divided peninsula.

Following the summit, Trump suspended South Korea-US joint military exercises.

Since then, Trump and Kim have exchanged private letters and spoken fondly of each other. Trump has gone from ridiculing Kim as “little rocket man” to saying he “fell in love” with him, and declared there is no longer “a nuclear threat” from North Korea.

But denuclearization talks to follow up on their commitment made at the Singapore summit have showed little progress, with the two sides demanding the other make concessions first.

Amid a deadlock in denuclearization talks, Moon traveled to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim on Sept. 19. Kim reaffirmed his willingness to denuclearize and promised to dismantle a Tongchang-ri missile engine test site. He also promised to dismantle a major nuclear complex in Yongbyon if the US takes reciprocal measures, according to Moon.

North Korea has increasingly demanded corresponding measures — such as sanctions relief — from the US in return for all the measures it has already taken, while the US has called on the North to take more irreversible and verifiable steps to denuclearize first.

In a sign of the continued impasse in North Korea-US relations, however, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned meeting with his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol was canceled at the last minute in November.

South Korean soldiers patrol along a border fence in northwestern Gyeonggi Province (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Despite a recent series of conciliatory gestures by Washington, Pyongyang has yet to engage Washington in working-level and senior-level talks aimed at working out details of how denuclearization will proceed and the second summit between Trump and Kim.

Inter-Korean relations, on the other hand, saw dramatic progress this year, with a total of 36 cross-border talks held.

Families separated by the Korean War were reunited at Kumgangsan in the North in August, and the Koreas in September opened the era of round-the-clock communication by setting up a joint liaison office in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong.

The Koreas also declared a de facto end to the war between the countries at their third summit by signing a military accord in which they vowed to “cease all hostile acts against each other.” Moon said “the era of no war has started.”

They have stopped military drills aimed at each other along the Military Demarcation Line, which separates the two countries, removed guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone and designated no-fly zones.

But there has been growing frustration that its efforts to develop relations with North Korea have not been matched with corresponding improvement in relations between Pyongyang and Washington.

The Koreas also held a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for the inter-Korean project to reconnect and modernize roads and railways across the border, but only after having won a sanctions exemption from the UN Security Council.

The actual construction will not likely proceed yet because of international sanctions against the North, led by the US as part of its “maximum pressure campaign.”

South Korea’s plans to declare an end to the Korean War and host Kim in Seoul for the fourth inter-Korean summit within the year could not materialize amid a lack of progress in North Korea-US denuclearization talks.

South Korea believes broader inter-Korean economic cooperation could show the North that it could have a bright future if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, thereby accelerating the North’s denuclearization. However, the US is more cautious about the fast pace of inter-Korean developments without tangible progress on the North’s denuclearization.

The South’s different approach toward North Korea has raised concerns in Washington, with speculation lingering over possible discord between the allies.

To better coordinate their North Korea policy, the allies in November launched a working group aimed at maintaining close coordination on North Korea’s denuclearization, the implementation of international sanctions against the North and inter-Korean cooperation.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)


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