A New Path Forward: Charting a Roadmap to Peace on the Korean Peninsula

As the relationship between North Korea and the United States goes through twists and turns, with the last-minute postponement of a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s former intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol in early November, policy experts and government officials in South Korea and the United States are left debating how to rekindle the will for denuclearization talks. Amid this slowdown in negotiations, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon last week made a five-day visit to Washington that included a keynote speech at the Wilson Center for the 2018 Korea Global Forum.

Minister Cho used his keynote speech at the forum to acknowledge concerns among U.S. experts and officials about the pace of inter-Korean engagement compared to denuclearization talks, especially as Washington insists on maintaining tough sanctions imposed on North Korea by the U.S. Treasury Department and the UN Security Council until denuclearization is complete.


South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon delivers a keynote address.

“It is too early to expect the United States and North Korea to establish trust after 70 years of hostility,” Minister Cho said at the Korea Global Forum on Nov. 15. “There is a huge gap in their perspectives, and they lack mutual understanding.”

However, he said, further engagement between the Koreas could facilitate and expedite plans for a second U.S.-North Korea summit—and that Kim Jong Un’s visit to Seoul, which would be the first ever for a North Korean leader, may be on the horizon.

Typically, summits require at least two months’ preparation, making it seem that another inter-Korean summit would be unlikely before the end of the year. However, he noted, the second summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, held in May, took place after just one day of planning.

Cho said a Seoul visit could be a breakthrough.

“Since the first inter-Korean summit, one of the things [late North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il wanted to accomplish was to visit Seoul, but we always faced a wall,” Cho said. “Breaking this wall will mark the beginning of a new relationship.”

At the same time that he advocated for inter-Korean engagement, Minister Cho insisted that “full-scale economic cooperation” between the Koreas could only begin after “progress in denuclearization.”

Seoul’s reassurances to Washington on the way forward with North Korea have gained urgency, with the Moon Jae-in Administration in Seoul seeking to serve as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea, and juggling the foes’ diverging priorities and even definitions of denuclearization.

Meanwhile, the military alliance between South Korea and the United States appears, with Secretary Pompeo complaining about being left out of the loop on the inter-Korean military agreement made in September, which aims to reduce hostilities on the Koreas’ shared border by removing landmines and guard posts and setting up a no-fly zone, among other measures. The United States and South Korea have since set up a working group to help improve coordination.

Changes at the DMZ aside, Kim and Moon also pledged at their first summit to declare a political end to the Korean War by year’s end; U.S. experts and officials are wary of what a potential end-of-war declaration would look like, and the implications it would have for the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Minister Cho also addressed these concerns during his talk.


Minister Cho responds to audience questions.

“The end-of-war declaration is a political symbol that gives Kim Jong Un the legitimacy to discuss denuclearization and engage with the South,” Minister Cho said. “As you know, it is different than the peace treaty… An end-of-war declaration will not change the stationing of the U.S. Forces Korea in South Korea, nor will it change the U.S.-ROK alliance.”

But concern has grown not only in the United States but also in South Korea. After a North Korean-born journalist was barred from covering a meeting between Minister Cho and his North Korean counterpart in October, some in South Korea accused the Moon administration of covering up negative news coverage of North Korea in order to preserve a conciliatory atmosphere. Later that month, Minister Cho met with representatives of North Korean defector groups to apologize for the decision.

Minister Cho acknowledged during the forum that “North Korean defectors have divided feelings about President Moon’s policies,” but denied an audience member’s question of whether defectors who supported President Moon might have received a financial incentive to do so.

Later in his visit to Washington, Minister Cho met with Secretary Pompeo to continue discussing close coordination between South Korea and the United States. The week was also marked by North Korea’s release of a U.S. citizen detained since October, the launch of a U.S.-ROK working group on North Korea, and a statement by Vice President Mike Pence that the United States would not require North Korea to declare a complete inventory of its nuclear weapons and missile sites before President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un for a second time.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has sponsored the Korea Global Forum since 2010, holding a series of Track-1.5 meetings and conferences to promote unification and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

This year’s Korea Global Forum in Washington, hosted by the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center and organized with support from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of Kyungnam University and the University of North Korean Studies, also included a luncheon where former South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Ahn Ho-young and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Marc Knapper toasted to the persisting strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance.


Amb. Ahn Ho-young, former South Korean ambassador to the U.S. (left), and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Marc Knapper deliver luncheon remarks.

After the forum luncheon, the conference reconvened for a public panel discussion. The panel, moderated by Amb. Ahn Ho-young, also featured Amb. Joseph Yun, senior advisor to the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy; Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund; Jean Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center; Prof. Yu-hwan Koh, director of the Institute of North Korea at Dongguk University; and Prof. Jung-chul Lee, director of Soongsil University’s Institute of Peace and Unification.


From left, Prof. Jung-chul Lee, director of Soongsil University’s Institute of Peace and Unification; Prof. Yu-hwan Koh, director of the Institute of North Korea at Dongguk University; Jean Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center; Amb. Joseph Yun, senior advisor to the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy; Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund; and moderator Amb. Ahn Ho-young at the Korea Global Forum.

The panelists discussed a wide range of issues linked to denuclearization, including the inter-Korean military agreement, potential concessions the United States could offer North Korea to move negotiations forward, and what to do about North Korea’s non-nuclear military capabilities.

Jean Lee of the Wilson Center pointed out that “North Korea knows it's in the international spotlight,” and will do whatever it takes to maintain and utilize global attention to its advantage, even if it means engaging in further provocations; therefore, negotiations are bound to move forward, whether on the United States’ terms or not. Indeed, on the day of the forum, North Korea boasted of an unspecified “ultramodern tactical weapon” it had successfully tested, albeit one that did not seem to involve a nuclear device or long-range missile.


   

In order to get ahead of North Korea’s provocations, Amb. Joseph Yun suggested bold confidence-building measures the United States could take. In addition to an end-of-war declaration and “some degree of sanctions relief,” he said, “We should really consider for the State Department to open a diplomatic liaison office [in Pyongyang].” However, he blamed conflicting viewpoints and strategies within the Trump administration for the recent lack of progress.

Laura Rosenberger also pointed to a lack of a clear vision from the Trump administration. Responding to Amb. Ahn Ho-young’s question about the effect the midterm elections will have on U.S. policy towards North Korea, Rosenberger said there won’t be much of a change, but even so, “It’s time to put an emphasis on transparency” when it comes to Washington’s approach.


    

In the meantime, Profs. Yu-hwan Koh and Jung-chul Lee noted that the two Koreas are moving forward on their own without getting too far ahead of the United States.

“The improvement of inter-Korean relations has been a facilitator of North Korean-U.S. relations, not an obstacle to North Korean-U.S. relations,” Prof. Koh said. “People raise concerns that inter-Korean relations are developing too quickly, but there’s not much South Korea can do on its own.”

On the inter-Korean military agreement, Prof. Lee said, “The easing of military tensions ensures the safety of the Korean people while at the same time focusing future discussions on denuclearization.”

“There is also an implication that if North Korea and the U.S. cannot reach an agreement, South Korea will not suffer collateral damage,” Prof. Lee added.

Following the panel, Amb. J. Stapleton Roy, founding director emeritus of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and a former U.S. ambassador, delivered closing remarks.

Amb. Roy illustrated the present misunderstandings between the United States and North Korea as President Trump “accepting a fig leaf” while claiming that Kim Jong Un has given him a fig; in other words, he was arguing that Kim has only offered the beginnings of the denuclearization process, but Trump has seen it as a guarantee of Kim’s sincerity to complete the process, no matter how long it may take.

Following the panel, additional government officials and experts—including Jung Pak, SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution; Kwan-sei Lee, director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of Kyungnam University; Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; Robert Litwak, senior vice president and director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center; and Ministry of Unification and State Department representatives—came together for a private roundtable discussion of the future of negotiations with North Korea.


The 2018 Korea Global Forum in Washington, DC, gave no clear answers for the near future of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, but it did offer suggestions for how the United States might move forward with a more unified, coherent strategy. It also presented a way to begin mending potential rifts between the United States and South Korea, as Minister Cho acknowledged the basis of U.S. skepticism and urged the audience to understand North Korea the way that he has.

“On September 19, President Moon addressed 150,000 North Korean citizens,” Minister Cho said. “During this address, we took photos of the North Korean citizens. After we returned to South Korea, I enlarged the photos to see the expressions of the North Korean people…[they] seemed very different from the past.”

“I think the people who are most hopeful may be the people in Pyongyang,” he continued. “The Korean people always think of unification and the possibility for change in the inter-Korean relationship. That’s why we could maintain hope even over the past 10 years of hostile relations.”

Matthew Silberman is an intern with the Korea Center. Previously, he worked at the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul as a Princeton in Asia fellow. He graduated from Princeton in 2017 with a degree in philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter at @matt_silberman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.