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An Evaluation of the Terms of Agreement Announced by ROK Special Delegation to DPRK: Managing the North Korean Nuclear Threat and Building Political and Military Confidence between the Two Koreas
2018.03.07  Wednesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

An Evaluation of the Terms of Agreement Announced by ROK Special Delegation to DPRK: Managing the North Korean Nuclear Threat and Building Political and Military Confidence between the Two Koreas


No. 2018-12 (March 7, 2018)

Cheong Seong-Chang (Director, Unification Strategy Department)


In its two-day visit to Pyongyang from March 5 to 6, South Korea’s special delegation reached a very crucial agreement with North Korea concerning the North Korean nuclear issue and the development of inter-Korean relations in the meeting with Chairperson Kim Jong-un of the Workers’ Party of Korea and North Korea’s State Affairs Commission. Cheong Wa Dae, the South Korean presidential office, announced the key details of the agreement between the two Koreas: to hold the third inter-Korean summit at the Peace House in Panmunjom truce village in late April; to set up a hotline between the two leaders; to proclaim North Korea’s resolve for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; to express North Korea’s intention to hold talks with the U.S.; to suspend North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile test-fires; and to send South Korean group of taekwondo performers and an art troupes to Pyongyang, among others.

Among the six points, the most significant statement is that “The North clearly stated that it would not resume any strategic, provocative acts, such as additional nuclear tests or the firing of ballistic missiles.” Should North Korea acquire the capability for ICBM through additional ICBM tests, the U.S. mainland faces a substantial nuclear threat from North Korea. Then, the commitment of U.S. nuclear umbrella could weaken, giving North Korea more leverage to conduct provocative acts against the South more boldly. Nevertheless, North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear tests and launches of ballistic missiles, putting the brakes on its advancement of nuclear and missile capabilities, and as a result, enabled a compromise with South Korea and the U.S.

The second significant point was that North Korea ‘clearly’ indicated that it is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and that it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons provided that the ‘military threat against North Korea’ is alleviated and the security of the regime is guaranteed. Because North Korea expressed a flexible stance hinting at the possibility of renouncing nuclear ambitions once the military threat is alleviated, exploratory dialogue on North Korea’s nuclear abandonment will be possible between Pyongyang and Washington in the future.

The statement that North Korea articulated its will to engage in ‘honest’ talks with the U.S. regarding the denuclearization issue and the normalization of DPRK-U.S. relations comes third in importance. While Pyongyang and Washington will have difficulty in finding a common ground due to the deep divide of mistrust between the two sides, ‘honest talks’ between the two could make U.S. consider less of a ‘military option’ against North Korea and the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula ignited by DPRK-U.S. confrontation will diminish.

The fact that the third inter-Korean summit will be held in late April at Peace House in Panmunjom truce village (and not Pyongyang) is the fourth important point agreed. Agreeing to the neutral area of Panmunjom, and not Pyongyang or Seoul, as the venue for the inter-Korean summit is an unconventional and practical approach to the form of the inter-Korean summit. It is worthy to note that the agreement to hold the third inter-Korean summit at the Peace House, which is located at the southern part of the Panmunjom, the epitome of inter-Korean confrontation, demonstrates Kim Jong-un’s audacious personality and determination.

The first and second inter-Korean summit was held in Pyongyang with a three-day schedule. Subsequently, some in South Korea asserted that the North Korean leader should visit the South now. Although it is not Seoul, it seems that North Korea partially accepted such option from the South as the summit is to be held in the southern part of the Panmunjom truce village.

A considerable amount of time and money is required to hold an inter-Korean summit in either Pyongyang or Seoul on a three-day schedule. However, as the third summit is agreed to be held in Panmunjom, the leaders of the two Korea will be able to hold practical talks on major pending issues whenever necessary. If the inter-Korean summit is possible regardless of any formality, the inter-Korean relations could take a step further.

The fifth important part of the agreement is that the two sides decided to set up a hotline between the leaders to mitigate military tensions and have close consultations, and agreed to have a telephone conversation prior to the third summit. It was hard to envision establishing a hotline between the leaders in the situation where the hotline between the military authorities was not open due to North Korea’s passive attitude. Nonetheless, it seems that the rapport of trust and reconciliation between Kim Yo-jong, the first deputy director of the WPK Central Committee and Kim Jong-un’s sister, and the South Korean leadership positively influenced Kim Jong-un’s decision. The hotline between the two leaders will prevent an inadvertent military clash caused by miscalculations from expanding to an all-out war and contribute to the improvement of communications between the two leaders.

Also, North Korea decided to invite a delegation of taekwondo performers and an art troupe to Pyongyang to sustain the amicable trend of reconciliation and cooperation fostered for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Such exchanges will contribute to reconciliation and reduction in tension between the two countries. While inter-Korean exchanges in sports and arts are worthy, it is unfortunate that the two sides could not agree on the reunion of the separated families.

North Korea pledged that it will not use its nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons against South Korea to the delegation. Still, this ‘pledge’ is unsustainable as it could be broken whenever the inter-Korean relations aggravate after the administration changes in the South.

Through the special delegation to North Korea, the South Korean government made a serious opportunity to maintain North Korean nuclear and missile threat stably, to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula, and to build political and military trust with its northern neighbor.

However, a rocky path lies ahead toward the abolition of North Korean nuclear weapons beyond the stable management of North Korean nuclear and missile threat. North Korea, though it may not test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, will continue to pursue mass production and deployment of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles just as Kim Jong-un ordered in his New Year address. And as North Korea obtained the technology to manufacture nuclear centrifuges, it is impossible to flawlessly inspect the nuclear program realistically even if North Korea vows to freeze the nuclear program. Also, if North Korea demands suspension of ROK-U.S. joint military exercises and the withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Korea as conditions for North Korea’s nuclear abolition, South Korea and the U.S. will not be able to accede to those demands. Whereas Pyongyang deems the ROK-U.S. joint military drills as a threat to North Korean security, Seoul and Washington claim that these drills are of a defensive nature. Therefore, it is doubtful whether the U.S. and North Korea could bridge the gap on what constitutes as ‘military threat against North Korea’ and achieve denuclearization on the peninsula. Hence, we cannot hastily conclude with an optimistic prospect regarding denuclearization.

The South Korean government should be prepared to respond to various situations related to the prospects of the North Korean nuclear issue. And to this end, it should not postpone the formation of a task force under the Cheong Wa Dae. Obviously, the task force should include proponents of the current administration’s policy on North Korea and its nuclear issue as well as experts who stand against the current administration’s policy on North Korea, hold heated discussions among the experts on the matter, and formulate realistic and detailed policies as a result.

Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.