Security and Foreign Policy

As Inter-Korean Relations Improve, the United States Risks Getting Left Behind

With the Inter-Korean Summit coming up, relations between North and South Korea seem to be improving. Andy Laub analyzes what this means for the United States, especially with China in the mix.

BY: ANDY LAUB

While the United States and North Korea appear to be at impasse over the North’s nuclear weapons program, one relationship that has been consistently improving since Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s détente has been the inter-Korean relationship between North Korea and South Korea. From low hanging fruit diplomacy such as the two Korea’s marching into the Asian Games together, playing a friendly game of basketball against each other to more consequential diplomatic overtures such as the establishment of the hotline for constant communication, working on building an inter-Korean railroad system and of course the important family reunions that are currently taking place are all indicative of much more positive future for the two Koreas. The next inter-Korean summit is now on the horizon in September, which will be held in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang following the first one at the Panmunjeom peace village at the DMZ border. The question dogging everyone is what should we expect.

Ever since the initial warming of relations, Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive landed him three critical meetings with important world leaders, putting him on the global stage for the first time with South Korea’s President Moon-Jae In, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S President Donald Trump. The leader he seemed to have the most chemistry with was President Moon, visible by their public embrace of one another, which makes sense given they are closest ethnically and share the same peninsula as well as goals in the peace regime. President Moon has also worked hard in spearheading this peace initiative and to keep the United States involved; moreover, the first summit ended up being a prelude to the Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un back in June. Is it possible that this might be the case again? Both the Trump Administration and North Korea have said there is a “strong possibility” of a second summit. Reports indicate that Kim Jong-Un might be invited to the United Nations General Assembly making history and possibly meeting with President Trump and other world leaders. But the question remains will the United States feel there has not been enough progress made for such a high level meeting.

The key thing to watch for in the inter-Korean summit is what sort of language is used around key issues such as denuclearization and sanctions. There will be pressure on President Moon from the Trump Administration to deliver concrete steps and agreements on denuclearization from North Korea given the lack of progress. One of the problems from the Singapore declaration from the first Trump-Kim summit was the very vague terminology around denuclearization and lack of ways forward. As such, the more specific language on denuclearization in the upcoming inter-Korean summit, the better.

However, from the North Korean perspective they will claim to have destroyed a key rocket launch site at the Sohae Station in July as part of a follow-up promise from the Trump-Kim summit despite the fact that there is no way to internationally verify it was in fact destroyed. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the North Koreans are likely to put pressure on South Korea and the United States about lifting sanctions claiming they have made multiple concessions and haven’t been appropriately rewarded. In conjunction with the Trump Administration’s policy of maximum pressure and maximum engagement, the President and Secretary Pompeo have made clear they will not lift sanctions during the talks. Their intent was made clear in last week’s fresh sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department on Russia for doing business with North Korea. It is important to remember in the big picture that Kim Jong-Un will use the improving inter-Korean relationship to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korean alliance, one of the US’s most important allies in the region.

Concurrently, it was just announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to travel to Pyongyang on September 9th to attend the military parade celebrating the founding of North Korea alongside Kim Jong-Un. China is North Korea’s only ally providing them with 90% of its trade and the region’s greatest power. It could also pull the plug on the maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, which it has previously supported, especially now since the United States and China are in the middle of a trade tariff war. Kim Jong-Un has been to China three times, the most of any country to sure up their alliance regardless of how these talks play out. As September approaches with a flurry of diplomacy leading up to the United Nations General Assembly, it will be key to see how things pan out- if things can be successfully executed to obtain concrete next steps or if the impasse will continue.


Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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