Stratfor's Fourth-Quarter Forecast laid out the difficult path ahead for U.S.-North Korean relations in the wake of the June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea is trying to smooth the way as much as possible, as both Washington and Pyongyang signal they are willing to proceed.
For South Korea, good news came early out of President Moon Jae In's landmark visit to Pyongyang. On Sept. 18, Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, along with their respective defense ministers, signed the September Pyongyang Joint Declaration.
The statement included two North Korean pledges related to denuclearization. The country pledged to permanently shut down the missile-engine testing facility and missile launchpad at Tongchang-ri with the presence of experts from "related countries." North Korea also said it would take further steps, including the permanent closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility if the United States takes corresponding steps.
Regarding inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to begin construction on road projects connecting their two countries by the end of the year and to ease the process of family reunions. When conditions are right, they resolved to restart tours to North Korea's Mount Kumgang and reopen the Kaesong industrial complex. Furthermore, the statement said that Kim plans to visit Seoul for the first time this year (again, if conditions are right) and that the two countries will bid to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games.
Finally, the two sides made military agreements, which were the culmination of several working-level talks in recent months and have been touted as fulfilling the promise of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. In addition to supporting measures to ease tensions along the Demilitarized Zone and in the adjacent waters, the two countries will establish a joint committee tasked partly with consulting on any large-scale military exercises and reconnaissance activities.
U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the agreement in a tweet after the announcement. On Sept. 20, Moon will return to South Korea before traveling to New York on Sept. 23 for the U.N. General Assembly and a Sept. 25 meeting with Trump. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he has invited the North Korean foreign minister to New York to discuss denuclearization, which he is pushing to be completed by 2021.
Why It Matters
The primary focus of this summit was to strengthen inter-Korean cooperation. South Korea's top priority is easing friction with the North and paving the way to long-term reunification. For North Korea, regularizing such connections establishes some inter-Korean solidarity even if U.S.-North Korea relations deteriorate.
But Seoul is also hoping to break the impasse between Washington and Pyongyang over denuclearization. North Korea has been insisting on a phased approach and requiring progress toward a Korean War peace treaty before it moves forward with denuclearization. But the United States has been pushing for tangible concessions and disclosure of the full program upfront.
To that end, North Korea's commitments are a slight step forward, though they include little new information. At the June Trump-Kim summit, North Korea pledged to tear down the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri. Washington will welcome the addition of inspectors to this process. However, the possible closure of the Yongbyon site appears to be contingent on U.S. actions. Yongbyon has been a key point in nuclear talks for over a decade now, shut down and suspended at various times at different stages of North Korean outreach.
Moreover, U.S. intelligence leaks indicate that North Korea has at least two covert enrichment sites, including one at Kangson. And there is as yet no mention of North Korea disclosing the full scope of its weapons program — a key U.S. request.
U.S.-North Korea relations appeared to hit a snag with the late August cancellation of a trip by Pompeo to Pyongyang. Since that time, the two sides have been clear that at the political level they are still willing to proceed with diplomatic outreach. The White House says it is already preparing for another Trump-Kim summit, and North Korea has abstained from parading its advanced missiles. This smooth inter-Korean summit might pave the way for another high-level meeting between Washington and Pyongyang.