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Regarding Peace Talks, North & South Korea Aren’t Waiting for U.S. Permission

Regarding Peace Talks, North & South Korea Aren’t Waiting for U.S. Permission


In the month since the Singapore summit, much of the world has been waiting for a plan for “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But in Seoul, Koreans aren’t wasting time defining denuclearization. Instead, they are pushing ahead with plans for reconciliation with North Korea—with or without the United States.

In the News:

“In the month since the Singapore summit where U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made history with a handshake, much of the focus in Washington, D.C., remains fixed on the question, and definition, of the leaders’ pledge to carry out “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump’s team is calling for the unilateral denuclearization of North Korea while Kim’s negotiators insist that both sides must destroy its nuclear capabilities, not just North Korea. The divergent definitions underline what many of us longtime Korea watchers had predicted: the U.S.-North Korea negotiations will be lengthy and complicated. But in Seoul, South Koreans aren’t wasting time defining denuclearization: They are pushing ahead with plans for reconciliation with North Korea—with or without the United States.”

Kim’s first summit with Moon inside the DMZ—the first covered live by foreign media—humanized a leader who until then had been more caricature than man for South Koreans. Many South Koreans tell me there were moved by the sight of Kim grasping Moon’s hand; seeing the two men chat easily was a powerful visual that reminded them that they share the same language and heritage as North Koreans. While many South Koreans remain unsure about North Korea’s true intentions on denuclearization, polls show their impression of Kim has improved immeasurably following the summits in the DMZ and in Singapore, giving Moon wide latitude to carry out his engagement policies. While many in Washington remain skeptical, the overriding message put forth by the Moon government is one of optimism on inter-Korean relations. Every day while I was in Seoul, news outlets carried reports about fast-moving people-to-people engagement between North Korea and South Korea…”

“The South Korean government’s attitude right now is: Get on board or get out of our way. The more protracted the U.S.-North Korean negotiations, the more potential for a gap between Washington and Seoul on North Korea policy as South Korea makes moves to lift its sanctions to allow for economic partnership. A gap in coordination between the United States and South Korea, and dissonant policies on sanctions, is precisely what North Korea wants as Pyongyang seeks to leverage growing inter-Korean unity without having to give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally. If Seoul and Washington do not coordinate closely, we may see the two Koreas reconcile—without any denuclearization on North Korea’s part.”

Insight from Peace Science:

“As conflict resolution professionals, we always look for openings in intractable conflicts such as this one. We must remember that the Korean War officially never ended and that all events are taking place in the context of a 1953 Armistice. A permanent peace treaty, reconciliation and unification of a divided country certainly are long-term aspirations. Realistically though, we need to understand conflict in its context and at its different stages of escalation. Last year, due to the exchange of threats between President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, we witnessed a highly escalated conflict short of war. Any small step away from the brink of war deserves support from all nations and civil society. At the same time, we need to hold realistic expectations of the outcomes. We should not expect grand concessions, like North Korea suddenly halting its nuclear weapons program.  We should allow Koreans to talk about their issues, (re)develop channels of communication, and support any agreement no matter how small it is. Then, based on what we know about successful diplomacy, sustained dialog and agreements on future issues are more likely. This is a Korean issue, perhaps it is best for the U.S. to take a back seat, making support for continued diplomacy between the two countries clear.”


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