Making Sense of North and South Korea's Diplomatic Summit

A foreign policy expert weighs in on the promises made between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, and where the world goes from here.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) pose for photographs after signing the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula during the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27th, 2018, in Panmunjom, South Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) pose for photographs after signing the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula during the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27th, 2018, in Panmunjom, South Korea. 

On Friday, the leaders of North and South Korea met in a diplomatic summit that was filled with theatrical gestures of cooperation and humor, according to the New York Times. The uncharacteristic show of goodwill between the neighboring countries culminated in a bold, if dubious, promise by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and North Korea's Kim Jong-un to finally end the Korean War—and to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

All of this came as a bit of a surprise to outside observers, many of whom, just a few weeks ago, had feared the possibility of war among the Koreas was imminent.

To help make sense of this seemingly abrupt change in the diplomatic winds, as President Donald Trump prepares to meet with Kim Jong-un, Pacific Standard spoke to Steven Weber, a political scientist who specializes in national security and North Korea at the University of California–Berkeley.

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How historic is this meeting? How big of a deal is it?

It's a pretty big deal. Everybody's right to be wary. These kind of summits always are really heavy on pageantry, nor do they usually ever yield really specific agreements. But look, if a year ago—or even six months ago—I had said to you this was going to happen today, you would have looked at me and said, "No way." It's a significant step forward.

But is the step forward mostly symbolic or are we seeing a substantive change?

It's somewhere in between. Summits set the tone for the real work, which of course never really gets done by the big leaders. It gets done by their staff. But this kind of image, and the pageantry, says to the bureaucracy in all the countries: The leaders are serious about looking to see whether there's a route to a negotiated solution. I take it as a very optimistic step. There may be no agreement that's possible to reach, but the symbolism says to the people in the capitals, "we're really going to try." And that's not something that anybody predicted. Three weeks ago, people were concerned that we were right on the brink of a war in Korea. And now we've taken several steps backward from that.

In addition to all the theater, the meeting included promises from both leaders to end the Korean War and to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. In what sense is the Korean War still ongoing? I was under the impression it effectively ended in 1953.

An armistice was signed—a ceasefire—but never a full peace treaty. The war has never really ended in a legal sense. That's a symbolic thing.

The bigger issue is that nobody really knows what Kim means by "denuclearization." If you want to be skeptical about it, you can say the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty called for denuclearization, and 60 years later, we're surely no closer to it. But in principle, it says there is some scenario where Kim could imagine giving up his nuclear arsenal, presumably in a verified way. We don't know what that scenario is. It might be an unrealistic one, like the removal of all American troops from the Korean peninsula. That's what people fear. But that's a negotiating position. At least now we're negotiating.

Ultimately, South Korea doesn't have nuclear weapons, and North Korea does. Why would North Korea want to give up their only real leverage? Just to get American troops to leave South Korea?

The conventional wisdom is that the sanctions have really bitten, and North Korea is looking for some kind of sanctions release. I don't think anybody really disagrees with that point of view. The question is: [Is North Korea] really willing to give up something meaningful to get that, or are they just trying to split the allies, and/or buy time to continue to advance their nuclear program?

I don't think we know the answer, but given the history of the United States getting played by North Korea a number of times over the past 30 years, I have some confidence in the White House to approach these talks with an appropriate level of skepticism, and not just let the North Koreans spread out for two to three years while they advance their nuclear programs. I don't think that's where we're headed. In three to six months we'll have a sense of whether there's a real bargain to be made here or not. And then we'll either move forward to what will be a safer world, or we'll return to where we were before these talks ever started.

Am I correctly understanding that your analysis is that the Trump White House is going to be smarter in handling North Korea than the administrations over the past 30 years? Or is it just that really anyone would have learned by now to not get played by North Korea?

There's a lot of experience now. Anyone in that position would say, "We're not going to sit around and kick the can down the road." And Trump has made it very clear he doesn't want to do that. His blustery stance toward the North Koreans might actually serve us well here. In addition, politically, this is a big issue for them. For many administrations, the North Korea issue wasn't the biggest issue for them. They had lots of other issues on which they staked their credibility. But for Trump, this is a big one.

Trump tweeted that North Korea has "agreed to denuclearization (so great for the World)," which obviously hasn't happened yet. Further, you've expressed some skepticism about whether North Korea is actually committed to that goal, even if that's the language they're using. Should we have confidence in Trump's ability to navigate these waters and understand exactly what's going on?

The easy answer is to assume that Trump's a moron and that Kim Jong-un is a genius and he's going to manipulate Trump. That seems a little bit too simplistic to me. In the best of all possible worlds, I'm not sure I would pick these two individuals—both of whom have demonstrated considerable degree of inscrutability and instability—to try to sit down and get an agreement. But this is the world that we live in, and these are the two that we have. I don't think Trump's going to get played for a fool here. On the few things that he really cares about, he pays attention. And this is one of the things he really cares about.

We've talked a lot about the U.S.'s relationship to this meeting, but I have to assume China played at least as much of a role.

The Chinese have been the linchpin to this relationship all along. I can't imagine that this would have come only from Chinese pressure, but it wouldn't have happened without Chinese pressure.

The [Chinese] have, by all accounts, tightened up the constraints on their sanctions and oil flow to North Korea for the past year. We know Kim Jong-un was in Beijing last week or the week before. We don't know exactly how heavily the Chinese are coming down on the North Koreans now. They appear to be coming down more heavily now than they have, up until now, for years.

In the realm of treating Kim Jong-un like an individual, does this meeting present him as a substantively different leader than his father? Or should we see this as the result of changes in the context of geopolitical circumstances—and maybe circumstances within North Korea?

My instinct is that it's the context more than anything else, but sometimes new people see the context a little bit differently [than a predecessor would have]. In some sense, he has ratcheted up the level of hostility and rhetoric higher than his father ever did. And now he's rapidly lowered it more than his father did. He's obviously in a different situation, and a different person.

I do think it really matters that he's a younger guy. And dictators see themselves as being in power for their entire lives. If he came into office and looked down the road and saw that there was no way in his mind that North Korea could survive as an economy for 50 years, he may have changed his mind about his willingness to bargain away at least some aspects of his nuclear program in order to bring about the change to the sustainability of the regime. I don't think he's suicidal. And I don't think he wants the North Korean regime to fall. He's trying to thread a needle, I suspect, of trying to maintain his nuclear deterrent, but to create an economic environment within North Korea that can actually work. Whether or not that's possible, we can only know. But he appears to be more open to some kind of a compromise than his father ever was.

What should we expect from the upcoming meeting from Trump and Kim now?

That summit, like this one, will be heavy on pageantry and atmospherics. My instinct says there'll be another one of these moments where the two of them walk off by themselves and everyone gets really nervous—what are these two guys going to say to each other without their staffs around to control them? But coming out of that, the real substance will be them coming back from that and saying to their staffs, "Here's what I want you to do next," and it will be two or three months before we know if there is anything significant to come from it.

I don't think there's going to be a decisive moment where they meet and say, "OK we got a deal!" or they're going to walk away and say, "The other guy's a bullshitter, not serious," or something like that.

Trump will probably press on timing, and try to get some parameters around what Kim really means by denuclearization. He won't get specific answers to those questions, and I think Kim will ask Trump, "In a world in which we were able to prove that, would you be willing to withdraw American forces from South Korea?" And Trump will say, "That's not on the table." And we'll start to narrow down the options.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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