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The Inter-Korean Relationship Post-2018: Another Wasted Chance for Peace

Photo credit: The Washington Post

April 27th, 2018 shall go down in history as one of the most significant dates in inter-Korean relations. It signified a historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea: President Moon Jae-in of the South and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the North. The North-South relationship has experienced significant turbulence over the years. It was arguably frozen since the second Inter-Korean Summit in 2007, and underwent some escalating tensions in 2017 as a result of Kim Jong-un’s continuous provocations.

Previous Inter-Korean summits were conducted 11 years ago between Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun, and 17 years ago between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il as a part of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy. After the first Inter-Korean Summit, the next high-level summit was held between Kim Jong-il and Roo Moo-hyun. Unfortunately, goodwill and follow-up after the summit were hindered when Roh Moo-hyun’s successor administrations under Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye took a tougher stance on North Korea. Hence, the third and most recent summit only received subdued reactions from South Koreans, though their reaction does not devalue the historic meaning of the third summit.

As previously mentioned, the third Inter-Korean Summit in Panmunjom was the first ‘high-level’ summit between North and South Korea in recent years, signaling an improvement in the relationship between two countries. Moreover, this meeting was initiated by Kim Jong-Un, taking his first diplomatic initiative since his inauguration. Prior to this he refused all offers for negotiation or talks with other countries, particularly talks about his nuclear program. After becoming Supreme Leader of North Korea, he refused to visit foreign countries to build foreign relations, displayed ruthless behavior (for example, a merciless purge of his own uncle, Jang Sung-taek), and increased North Korean’s nuclear capability. Moreover, the third Inter-Korean Summit also opened the door for negotiations between the DPRK and the U.S. As of 2019 Trump and Kim have met twice to negotiate about denuclearization efforts and sanctions towards the DPRK, though the latest summit in Hanoi failed to produce any meaningful progress.

Despite the appearance of important developments being made during the third Inter-Korean Summit, the arguments about and reactions to the summit was divided, as they were during the First and Second summits. Some responded positively to the summit, saying that it was a new beginning in the Inter-Korean relationship. On the other hand, some regarded it as yet another meaningless summit. Based on this background, this article aims to draw some comparisons between three Inter-Korean summits, in order to analyze the feasible ‘outcome’ of the Inter-Korean relationship after the Panmunjom and Pyeongyang Declarations in 2018.

Diplomatic Blitz: Fostering the Inter-Korean Relationship

As presented in Table 1 above, each Inter-Korean Summit had its own declaration, and each contained similar points. All Inter-Korean declarations included agreements about family reunions, reunification efforts by Koreans, and economic cooperation. However, more points and details were included in the second and third summit; in fact, the contents of the Panmunjom Declaration seemed to echo the 4.10 Declaration more than 6.15 Joint Declaration. Both declarations further specified efforts establishing cooperation in economics (Gaeseong), confidence building, reconnecting railways, opening Geumgang as tourist attractions, ending hostility in the DMZ, establishing joint fishing areas, and declaring an end to the war.

For the Third Summit economic issues, reunification, and denuclearization became the most discussed points. Differently from two previous summits, this summit declared that both nations aimed to achieve permanent peace through a declaration to end the Korean War (presumably through a peace treaty), to remove the danger of war along the DMZ, and denuclearization, and actually made some follow-up efforts. Kim Jong-un himself showed his intention to rebuild good relationship with his Southern ‘kin’ and to build a permanent peace regime, though he never specifically mentioned about what kind of denuclearization his regime wanted.

As an implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration, both Koreas held a reunion event for separated families in August 2018 and conducted video conferences. However, there has been no further reunion events after 2018 even though Moon’s government planned to hold more regular meetings and hometown visits (Nikkei Asian). As a gesture of their goodwill, North Korea also conducted dismantlement of the Punggyeri nuclear test site and invited foreign press, though South Korean press was unable to attend. In addition, there were several working-level meetings to implement the Panmunjom Declaration. The meetings’ agenda, according to the Press Release of the Ministry of Unification, included the establishment of a joint liaison office (which was fully realized in September 2008); holding some inter-Korean military talks; deciding on a location for the Inter-Korean railway forestry and art cooperation; holding athletic talks to discuss cooperation in sport; deciding on family reunion events; and deciding to hold regular high-level talks (which happened on August 2018).

In 2018, a week before Chuseok, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un met each other again for the fourth summit in Pyongyang. This summit planned to discuss the continuation of the Panmunjom Declaration and the stagnation in denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea. As a highlight of the whole Inter-Korean diplomatic blitz, both leaders paraded around Pyeongyang in an open car to celebrate the first visit of a South Korean leader after 11 years. The First Couple of South Korea were greeted with hugs and handshakes by the First Couple of North Korea amidst the cheers of North Koreans, waving the reunification flag. Moon also addressed Pyongyang citizens directly, talking about reunification, then both countries planned to submit a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics, remove 11 guard posts from the DMZ, and to set up video conferences for divided families to reunite.However, some of the biggest promises from the summit remain incredibly vague. For example, Kim Jong-un agreed to invite “international observers” to watch him shut down the Tongchang-ri missile facility. Meanwhile, both nations agreed to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for an inter-Korean railway system before the end of 2018. Joint-survey of the railways were conducted in December 2018, around 11 years after the last joint-inspection was conducted. Initially, the Inter-Korean railway projects faced some obstacles as North Korea was (and is) still under UN sanctions; however, South Korea managed to obtain sanction exemption from the UNSC and the U.S.

Prior to the Pyongyang summit, some representatives of both Koreas had already met to discuss the opening of a liaison office in Gaeseong, which opened in September. In addition, some military officers from both sides met in Tongilgak to gradually dismantle guard posts along the DMZ area and steady repatriation of Korean War victims in both countries. A joint excavation process started in October in Arrowhead Hill and White Horse (Baengma) Hill, and saw the removal of 10 guard posts along the demarcation line. By doing so, both Koreas have successfully implemented confidence building measures and removed the danger of war, as stated in Pyongyang Declaration.

Inter-Korean Relationship’s Cycle: Another Lost Chance of Peace

Unfortunately, the progress started in 2018 seems to be coming to a halt in 2019. The year of diplomatic blitz seems to have passed, and the Inter-Korean relationship has returned to a cycle of stagnation again, as happened in the previous two summits. The relationship went downhill after the second summit partly due to a change in administration. For the First Summit, there was more of a diplomatic blitz, more dialogues and more approved-projects, but it started deteriorating from several naval confrontations at Northern Limit Line. For denuclearization progress, IAEA claimed that it could not verify that North Korea used its nuclear for military purposes because their access to nuclear facilities was limited. On the other hand, George W. Bush took a hardline approach towards DPRK by declaring them part of the Axis of Evil. As the alliance of the U.S. and South Korean government was put into a dilemma amidst such a situation. Though they were still eager to foster a good relationship with the DPRK, the U.S.’s declaration limited the ROK’s ability to pursue cooperation with their Northern neighbor. Therefore, Bush’s declaration worsened the relationship between the U.S. and the DPRK (the talks about the armistice agreement and peace treaty were all cancelled) and subsequently between the DPRK and the ROK.

This time, as if echoing the fallout during the first summit, the Inter-Korean relationship seems to be going downhill after the ‘failure’ of the Hanoi Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. However, I would like to argue that theMoon-Kim Summits have not actually achieved that much in spite of the publicity and media coverage they got. There are some visible improvements in the relationship and efforts at the working-level, and the talks about denuclearization are also ongoing between the U.S. and the DPRK. Hence, the Panmunjom and Pyeongyang Declarations arguably have more chances of success than previous Inter-Korean summits. Nevertheless, the implementation and approval of the agreed projects remains at a low level.

As seen from the dialogue breakdownsfor each declaration’s points(Table 1) above, there were less dialogues between the two Koreas in 2018 compared to dialogues during the Sunshine Policy period, and even surprisingly less than the number of dialogues after the second summit. Table 2 below even shows that the level of approval for Inter-Korean projects reached the lowest point in 2018, and none of economic projects were approved (although they might be hindered by heavily imposed sanctions on North Korea).

Meanwhile, the progress of Gaesong, joint-fishing areas, and other economic cooperation efforts are hindered by UN sanctions. South Korean officials hoped that the sanctions could be eased prior to the Hanoi Summit between the DPRK and the U.S.; however, the summit failed to produce any meaningful results. In late March, North Korea suddenly withdrew their staff from their liaison office without any clear reasons, only citing ‘orders from higher-ups’. The staff returned afterwards without further explanation. Kim further accuses Moon Jae-in being meddlesome in the denuclearization talks with the U.S. during his speech in front of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), unwisely smearing the goodwill of the South Korean government towards the North. North Korea also has not attended any of weekly meetings at the joint liaison office since Hanoi. As a signal that their relationship continues to grow sour, North Korea did not attend a special event in Panmunjeom to celebrate the first anniversary of the Panmunjeom Summit, though South Korea sent them a notification about it. There is also the further possibility that North Korea will not attend the June anniversary of the 2001 Inter-Korean Summit.

Looking back at the previous history of the Inter-Korean relationship, South and North Korea have already signed some agreements, such as the July 4thJoint Statement, the Basic agreement of 1991, the Joint Declaration for Denuclearization, the June 15thDeclaration, and the October 4thdeclaration. Some working-level meetings and dialogues have also been conducted. After the first Inter-Korean Summit, for instance, around six rounds of military talks were conducted, and four family reunion events were held. Nevertheless, some points of declaration remain unimplemented, and agreements could not be reached by both sides. After the second summit working-level meetings were conducted, yet the agreements were never fully implemented as Roh Moo-Hyun’s administration ran out of time. The relationship then worsened in June 2008, when the conservative government pulled South Korean staff from the Office of Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation in Gaeseong. Two days later, North Korea retaliated by banning any South Korean government officials from entering the country. The relationship was visibly frozen for a decade until Moon Jae-In took the reign of presidency.


The Pyongyang and Panmunjom Declarations had so much potential to alter the Inter-Korean relationship and move it forward after a decade of stagnation. They were signed when the relationships between the governments of the ROK, the DPRK, and the U.S. were amicable. Each country has also shown their respective goodwill to meet, produce some agreements, and follow them up with working-level meetings and implementations. Unfortunately, the third summit also seems to echo the failures of the previous of Inter-Korean relationship.

Under Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s relationship with North Korea has become more amicable than ever. Likewise, Kim Jong-un has also displayed a willingness to cooperate with South Korea and the U.S., despite differences in the meaning and stages of denuclearization. Moreover, during his New Year speech in 2019, Kim Jong-Un reaffirmed his commitment to continuing what his regime achieved the year before.As previously mentioned, both countries achieved the most progress in removing danger of war along the DMZ areas through guard post removal and de-landmining the DMZ. However, as the old guard posts along the JSA are removed and new ones are built (South’s guard post is located at the North side and vice versa), there has been no agreement on the new security arrangement in the JSA (Korea Herald). The new security arrangement is expected to be more complicated, as civilians will be allowed to roam around the JSA areas, and the security guards of both sides are unarmed.

***The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies or North Korean Review.

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