One of the biggest gains South Korea achieved from its Olympic diplomacy with North Korea was Kim Jong Un’s personal invitation to president Moon Jae-in to hold an inter-Korean summit, scheduled to be held in May. This would mark a monumental progress in inter-Korean dialogue and relations since the start of a stalemate, which started with the abandonment of the Sunshine Policy in 2008. This invitation is a big diplomatic reach from North Korea following multiple tensions regarding its highly controversial nuclear tests last year and early this year.
Today, it was confirmed that unofficial talks between North Korea, South Korea, and the U.S. would be held in Finland, leading up to the summit in May. Although the South Korean foreign ministry has declined to state details regarding the timing and content of the meeting, the spokeswoman did mention that the delegation would be comprised of both former government officials and civilian academics. Finland has been confirmed to be the country in which this talk will take place, given the country’s historic role as a neutral mediator in cold war relations since the end of the Second World War. The Wall Street Journal had described this talk as quite a spontaneous meeting “amid a flurry of recent diplomatic activity,” given that this was not part of the official process leading up to the inter-Korean summit. These talks are to be more of a discussion among former officials and academic experts from the three countries participating in preparation for the May meeting involving their top leaders. According to CNN, an official at Finland’s foreign ministry described the meeting as a “track 1.5 academic meeting… involving representatives from North Korea, SK, and the US.” Although there was no official response to the nature of the talks, the meeting in Helsinki was confirmed after announcements made by South Korea that Kim had expressed a willingness to discuss prospects of nuclear dismantlement. Furthermore, yesterday marked the end of three days of talks in Stockholm between Swedish and N.K. foreign ministers discussing challenges and opportunities for a diplomatic agreement on N.K.’s security situation.
North Korea has always been at the center of concern in the international arena on the topic of nuclear weapons. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), where, shortly after in April that year, the state declared possession of nuclear weapons. Three years later in 2006, North Korea had tested a long-range missile, declaring it a success. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) responded by imposing various sanctions on the state as an expression of condemning the act. Looking back at previous nuclear talks that involved the U.S., North Korea, and South Korean delegates were the Six-Party Talks held between 2007 and 2008. These talks were the last of the series of nuclear negotiations that took place with North Korean participation, before breaking down after North Korea’s continued refusal to permit international inspectors’ access to examine its alleged nuclear sites. In defiance of the U.S. and the multiple sanctions imposed on N.K., the state has continued its nuclear testing, leading to claims last year that N.K. had conducted its first successful ICBM test.
Given the nature of Kim and Trump, many have voiced concerns about negotiation outcomes. The two leaders, known for their strong-willed and idiosyncratic natures, have moved from trading threats of war just earlier this year, to Trump accepting Kim’s invitation for nuclear talks. Just last year, Trump had threatened Kim with “fire and fury,” followed by a string of hostile tweets, with which N.K. responded with a threatened strike on Guam, further heightening military tensions. Trump and Kim’s meeting would be a landmark event, as no sitting American president has ever met directly with a North Korean leader. However, quoting the New York Times, there are uncertainties regarding the impact personal participation could have on the direction of negotiations, given the two leaders’ “penchant for bold, dramatic moves.” Trump’s recent decision to fire Tillerson sparked nervous reactions, particularly from allied governments like Japan and Korea involved in preparing for the inter-Korea summit, as it could create unpredictability and some instability in the course of the talks.
But, most importantly, what does this imply for peace at the Korean border? As a sign of easing relations, this year the annual joint South Korean-American military drills, long opposed by N.K., are not only to be cut down to one month instead of two, but also will not include the deployment of aircraft carriers and B1-bombers. Perhaps the biggest gain the Koreas would receive from the re-opening of dialogue would be the opening of opportunities to discuss not only the nuclear issue, but also other humanitarian concerns. An opening up of active inter-Korean dialogue can also mark the start of warmer relations between the two states that have been in a dormant war since the signing of an armistice in 1953.