The June 2018 summit in Singapore between Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump was a historic event. Yet, participants at the Oslo Forum noted that the agreement emerging from the summit was short and substantively light. A bigger breakthrough actually took place in the press conference following the summit, when President Trump declared that the joint military exercises between the US and the Republic of Korea would be cancelled for 2018.
In terms of missed opportunities, participants noted that the summit’s outcome document could have recognised the stopping of nuclear and missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Another possible achievement would have been to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors access to previously declared sites. A third and critical step could have been for the DPRK to declare all sites related to its nuclear and missile programmes – one of the main roadblocks in the negotiations.
Participants also discussed how the US could demonstrate its long-term commitment to the process. They noted that the steps demanded of the DPRK were mostly irreversible in the short-term, such as the dismantling of their nuclear programme, whereas offers from the US side, such as the establishment of political liaison offices, were easily revocable. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate to the DPRK that the process is considered irreversible by the US. Participants agreed that a detailed roadmap for the denuclearisation of the Peninsula with concrete steps was urgently required.
Discussing the commitment of the DPRK to the process, participants highlighted that the summit and the willingness of Chairman Kim to meet with President Trump was not due to a sudden change of heart, but constituted the culmination of a long-term strategy that was set in motion several years ago. This strategy was conveyed through signals, such as Chairman Kim’s 2017 statement that he would not change the country’s nuclear path unless the US ended its hostile policy towards the DPRK. This was followed by the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration in which Chairman Kim and President Moon confirmed their joint commitment to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Similarly, the announcement of the “New Strategic Line”, combined with strategic promotions to its Politburo, shifted the DPRK’s focus and budget towards its economy, and marked an important pivot in the country’s strategy. Participants highlighted that this momentum towards economic development should be supported by other countries in order to generate a high opportunity cost for the DPRK in case the country were to consider backtracking from the peace process.
Participants also discussed the possible repercussions of the DPRK’s isolation. Some commentators opined that increasing exposure to the outside world for the DPRK’s extremely isolated populace may pose one of the greatest dangers to the future of the regime. Some also questioned whether the progress of negotiations could be affected by blind spots in Pyongyang’s vision of the outside world. However, one commentator noted that while the DPRK’s society was extremely isolated, negotiators and decision-makers in Pyongyang were not – they follow external news sources and observe the outside world extensively. Approaching them with pre-conceived notions about their isolation would therefore be a disservice to the process.
President Trump’s role in the peace process was also discussed. Despite his initial use of hostile rhetoric, his willingness to engage with the DPRK sets him apart from his immediate predecessors. However, problems may arise in the future if there are no concrete developments on the path to denuclearisation for him to showcase to the American public. Some participants maintained that these problems could be avoided as long as the DPRK continues to co-operate minimally.
Participants agreed that the gains made in 2018 would not have been possible without the combined political willingness of President Moon, Chairman Kim and President Trump. However, the road ahead is long, and the continued political willingness of all parties must be sustained for many years to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.
This column is from the Oslo Forum 2018 – “The End of the Big Peace” Report
The Oslo Forum is acknowledged as the leading international network of conflict mediation practitioners. It is co-hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Oslo Forum regularly convenes conflict mediators, high-level decision-makers and key peace process actors in a series of informal and discreet retreats.