A historic inter-Korean summit between the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, was held on 27 April 2018 on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area that separates the divided Koreas. The summit saw the leaders of the two hostile nations committing themselves to a nuclear-free peninsula and talks to bring a formal end to the Korean War.
The two leaders initially shook hands at the raised military Demarcation Line, and Kim then stepped into South’s territory, becoming the first North Korean leader to do so since the Korean War in 1953. President Moon also accepted an invitation from Kim to briefly step over to the North’s side of the Line. The two leaders then walked together to the Peace House, located just south of the Military Demarcation Line in the Joint Security Area of the South Korean village of Panmunjom, for the talks.
The 2018 summit was the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years and the third since the Korean War in 1953. It took place after the two sides held several meetings in preparation for the joint attendance at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The idea initially was brought forward through an official invitation from the North to conduct a meeting. The two Koreas’ high government officials had held a working-level meeting on 4 April to discuss summit details at the Peace House.
Many elements of the meeting seemed to be expressly designed for symbolism, including an oval meeting table measuring 2,018 millimeters to represent the year. The two leaders conducted a tree-planting ceremony near the demarcation line using soil and water from both sides. The soil came from Mount Paektu, on the North’s border with China, and Mount Halla, on the South’s southern island of Jeju. The water was brought from the Taedongriver in the north and the Han river from the Sooth. The tree was from 1953, the year the Korean War armistice was signed. Before going into their meeting in Peace House, on the South Korean side of the border, Kim signed a message in the guestbook proclaiming a ‘new era of peace’.
Meetings and the Panmunjom Declaration
During the meetings, the leaders discussed denuclearisation and rebuilding relations. Both Kim and Moon expressed a desire for future meet-ups, and Moon hailed it as a ‘very good discussion’. Moon said that the ‘weight on our shoulders is heavy’ but said the conference would be a ‘gift to the world’.
After meetings with officials, the two leaders signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification on the Korean Peninsula in which the leaders made a number of pledges regarding co-operation and peace. Notable among these pledges are:
to work towards the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
to convert the Korean Armistice Agreement into a full peace treaty, formally ending the Korean War after 65 years, by the end of this year.
to end ‘hostile activities’ between their nations, for the resumption of reunion meetings for divided families, to improve connections along their border, and for the cessation of propaganda broadcasts across it.
Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang, North Korea, later in 2018.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, applauded ‘the courage and leadership that resulted in the important commitments and agreed actions outlined’ at the historic Korea summit and noted that many around the world are ‘moved by the powerful imagery’.
United States President Donald Trump hailed the summit. South Korea credited Trump for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table. After Pyongyang had become aggressive with its nuclear and missile tests, the US and UN imposed crippling economic sanctions, which forced the North to come to the negotiating table. The US and North Korea are expected to formally meet in late May or early June this year.
All the key players in the region also welcomed the agreement. China, North Korea’s key international ally, said, ‘The positive outcome of the summit is helpful for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, peace and stability on the peninsula and the political resolution of Korean Peninsula issues.’ Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the move but urged Pyongyang to take ‘concrete action’ on the peninsula’s denuclearisation and other issues. Russia praised the Korean summit as ‘very positive news’, saying direct dialogue on the divided peninsula was promising. It added that it was ready to facilitate cooperation between North and South Korea.
It has been pointed out that the Panmunjom Declaration is definitely a step forward. The coming together of the two leaders was unthinkable only months ago, as the nuclear-armed North carried out a series of missile launches and its sixth atomic blast, earning itself new sets of UN Security Council sanctions. In fact, Kim and Trump had traded personal insults and threats of war, and tensions had soared. But Moon seized on the Winter Olympics to try to broker dialogue, and that spearheaded a diplomatic effort leading to the meeting in the Demilitarized Zone.
As Kim pointed out later, the truce village of Panmunjom was the ‘symbol of heart-wrenching division’…but if it became ‘a symbol of peace, the North, and South that have one blood, one language, one history and one culture, will return to becoming one’.He also pledged the two Koreas would ensure they did not ‘repeat the unfortunate history in which past inter-Korea agreements… fizzled out after beginning’.In the declaration, the two sides said they would seek meetings this year with the US and possibly China — both of the parties to the 1953 ceasefire – ‘with a view to declaring an end to the war, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime’.
But some critics believe the Kim-Moon agreement has more style than substance. The two previous Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, both of them in Pyongyang, had also ended with friendly symbolic displays and similar pledges, but the agreements ultimately bore no fruit.
The present three-page document states what is needed but not how these goals are to be achieved. First, formulating a treaty to formally close the decades-long conflict is not going to be easy, as past experience shows. The Korean War is technically still going since the warring parties agreed to pause the war — not end it — in 1953. So, China and the US, which respectively backed North Korea and South Korea during the conflict, also must sign a formal peace treaty for the war to officially end. It is not clear how and when all the parties will come to the table to resolve the issue.
The denuclearisation front is even trickier and it is unclear how progress will be made on this very contentious issue. Pyongyang has always insisted it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against a South Korean or US invasion. For Pyongyang, ‘denuclearisation’ is dependent on the US removing its troops and its nuclear umbrella that currently defends South Korea and Japan. The US and South Korea, by contrast, want North Korea to dismantle its nuclear sites and stop producing missiles that can hit US allies and even the American mainland.
The Korean conflict goes back to World War II. Korea had been under Japanese rule since 1910. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into two regions. The Soviet Union occupied the area north of the 38th parallel and the United States occupied the area south until 1948 when two new ideologically opposite countries were established: the China and Soviet Union-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) which was communist in nature and the US-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea) which based its economy on capitalism. Each country had a separate government, but both claimed to be the legitimate government of all of Korea, and neither accepted the border as permanent.
The division of the country had economic consequences. The Japanese had developed the North in terms of infrastructure–railroads, dams, and industry— where they needed them. The South produced most of the food, particularly rice. As a result, the North needed the South for its food production.
The Korean War (1950-1953) began when the North Korean Communist army, backed by Soviet tanks, crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded non-Communist South Korea on 25 June 1950. The UN Security Council authorized the formation and dispatch of UN forces to Korea] to repel what was recognized as a North Korean invasion. Twenty-one countries of the UN eventually contributed to the UN force, with the US providing around 90% of the military personnel. The US, UN and South Korean (ROK) forces recaptured Seoul, the capital of South Korea, but did not stop at that. They crossed the 38th Parallel and pursued the North Korean army all the way to the northernmost provinces of North Korea. China took this development as a threat and secretly sent an army across the Yalu River to attack the US/UN/ROK forces. The surprise Chinese intervention triggered a retreat of UN forces which continued until mid-1951. There were many reversals of fortune and Seoul changed hands several times. North Korea was repeatedly bombarded while Soviet pilots covertly flew in defense of their communist allies. Jet fighters confronted each other in air-to-air combat for the first time in history.
On 27 July 1953, an armistice was signed and the fighting stopped. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate North and South Korea and allowed the return of prisoners. However, no formal peace treaty was signed, and according to some sources, the two Koreas are technically still at war.
On 3 October 1953, the US and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty under which South Korea granted free military bases to the US. In return, the US would automatically defend its ally against any attack. (The US still has troops in South Korea.)
Though the fighting ceased, the mistrust between the two sides did not. China and the Soviet Union continued to provide aid and technology to North Korea to recover from the war as well as oppose US dominance in the region. With the aid of the Soviet Union and China, North Korea began research to eventually achieve nuclear capability. With time, North Korea gained significant nuclear weapons and missile capability and remained defiant to all international disarmament efforts. On the other hand, the US maintained its control over South Korea and stationed nuclear missiles in there, in violation of the armistice.
Skirmishes between the armies of the two nations have continued over the years. These also include alleged assassination attempts on leaders and bombing of planes. In 1987, the US designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. In 2008, President Bush lifted the designation to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme. In 2017, President Trump reinstated the state sponsor of terrorism designation. In November 2017, North Korea launched a missile capable of reaching Washington DC.
The UN and US-led consortium of nations have imposed several sanctions on North Korea and these have begun to hit the nation severely.
The US-North Korea relations took a nosedive after a series of threats of head-on attacks on each other. In a reversal of stand, on 9 March 2018, South Korean officials announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was ‘committed to denuclearization’, and would ‘refrain from any further nuclear and missile tests’ and wished to meet US President Donald Trump. Trump accepted the invitation to a face-to-face meeting, to be held in May 2018. The meeting, if it takes place, would be the first in history between leaders of the US and North Korea.