North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In completed their inter-Korean summit with the release of the highly anticipated "Panmunjom Declaration." This document includes pledges to work toward signing a peace deal this year ending the Korean War, denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula in a phased manner and developing inter-Korean relations leading toward reunification. In practical terms, Kim and Moon agreed to a nonaggression pact, stated plans to resume family reunions on Aug. 15, set up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, halted propaganda activities on the Demilitarized Zone and began the process to connect cross-border railways and roads. Moon said he will visit Pyongyang in the autumn. The meeting, the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years and only the third overall, began with the highly symbolic moment of Kim crossing the military demarcation line and Moon taking a symbolic impromptu step into North Korea as well.
In its 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor laid out how North Korea will use outreach to South Korea to break out of the escalating cycle of tensions with the United States. The April 27 inter-Korean summit was an opportunity for Pyongyang to deepen ties with Seoul in hopes of securing more favorable treatment from the United States.
None of the agreed-upon Panmunjom Declaration points are major concessions or shifts, but each reflects long-expected confidence-building measures. And this inter-Korean meeting is in many ways primarily a prelude to the upcoming summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump. The details for the U.S.-North Korea summit will be largely based on what happened between Kim and Moon on April 27 — with the potential that sidebar conversations between Moon and Kim will provide further assurances to the United States. For South Korea, its summit with the North offers a brief moment to lead in facilitating U.S.-North Korean relations. The opportunity for a lasting U.S.-North Korea deal will fall apart if either the United States or North Korea backs out, so South Korea is trying to use this summit to keep the momentum going. South Korea wanted to get a commitment from the North on further visits and other regular dialogue channels, both of which it secured. In the immediate term, South Korea needs the anxiety of an impending war between the United States and North Korea to end.
North Korea, too, is focused in part on Kim's upcoming meeting with Trump and is using the inter-Korean summit to lock down the U.S. summit. For North Korea, a meeting between Kim and Trump is about gaining recognition as a peer country to the United States. Its immediate goal in reaching out to South Korea was to shift perceptions, ease the sense of tension on the peninsula and get the economic cooperation track going to ease economic isolation. In the long term, both Koreas have a shared fear of being squeezed between a rising China and a resurgent Japan — meaning both aim for a unified, independent peninsula. Another main focus is to shape Kim's personal image, presenting him as a cooperative, capable leader who can stand toe-to-toe with his counterparts on the international stage — an image he carefully sculpted in March meetings with South Korean envoys and with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Going into the U.S.-North Korea summit, the key question remains whether North Korea would truly give up its nuclear weapons program. For decades, it used its nuclear program as a bargaining chip that it could trade away to the international community for more favorable economic and diplomatic treatment. In the past few years, however, North Korea appeared to regard developing a nuclear weapon as a strategic necessity. But in the runup to the inter-Korean summit, North Korea announced it would suspend intercontinental ballistic missile testing and nuclear tests and dismantle its nuclear test site. It also hinted that it would be willing to give up its nuclear program, although it couched this denuclearization in the context of global disarmament. This raises the possibility that Pyongyang might be willing once again to strike a nuclear deal in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions. However, the phrasing of the Panmunjom Declaration refers to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which could mean movement of U.S. strategic assets from South Korea, and a phased, rather than a rapid denuclearization — which goes against what the United States has called for.
Ultimately, any denuclearization deal will be fraught with uncertainty, lack of trust and questions about whether North Korea will renege on any commitments. However, at this point what matters is whether all three sides have the political will to shape relations and actions despite those challenges, rather than let the technical define the political.