On April 27, 2018, the Shorenstein APARC Korea Program held a special public panel discussion following the dramatic summit that took place but hours earlier that day between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the village of Panmunjom. Titled “North Korea Summit Diplomacy: Round 2,” the panel featured Gi-Wook Shin, director of APARC; Kathleen Stephens, the William J. APARC fellow in the Korea Program and former ambassador to South Korea; Philip Yun, executive director and chief operating officer of Ploughshares Fund; and Yong Suk Lee, Korea Program deputy director, who moderated the discussion.
Same Movie, Different Actors?
Panelists admitted to feeling a sense of déjà vu. “We’re watching a replay of an old movie,” observed Professor Shin. “There are new actors, but will it be more than that?” They agreed, however, that the fact the summit happened at all was still a sign of progress. “It’s great that inter-Korean dialog is back after a decade of confrontation,” stated Professor Shin. “But is it really possible to achieve complete denuclearization?” he continued. “How far will the North go, and what will it get in return?”
Noting that similar optimism surrounded talks held by the Koreas in 2000—only for it to ultimately amount to little—the panel argued that a key difference between this summit and previous ones was the nature of the actors, particularly the North Korean representation.
“What has changed from past efforts?”, Shin asked the audience. “Kim Jong-un grew up; he was groomed to behave like a king, and we saw him [at the summit] acting like one.” Ambassador Stephens added that “Kim wants to present himself as a different kind of Korean leader, a respected leader of a normal state; the complete opposite style from his predecessors.”
Breaks from the past exist on the South Korean side as well. “This was a process driven by South Korea in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Stephens. “For South Koreans, it’s amazing to see that the leaders were not using interpreters, they were just speaking Korean; it underscores the nationalist issue underpinning this conflict, which the Americans need to be aware of.”
No seats at the Table
The U.S. administration’s reaction to the summit was swift, with President Trump tweeting both that the U.S. people should be proud and, perhaps more interestingly, praising President Xi of China for his support that has made the recent breakthrough possible.
However, Yun expressed concern about “Japan and China feel[ing] left out.” He noted that this might yet again prove to be another instance of a Kim dynasty member setting other actors against each other for North Korea’s benefit, and that regional actors have doubts about the American level of commitment. “I think the Japanese are afraid the United States is going to cut a deal on long range missiles and then go home.”
“What we’re going to see regionally is a competition or a battle for Trump’s word,” he continued. “Who can be the last person to talk and convince him that their perspective is the correct one.”
(From left to right, Yong Suk Lee, Korea Program deputy director; Philip Yun, executive director and chief operating officer of Ploughshares Fund; Kathleen Stephens, the William J. APARC fellow in the Korea Program and former ambassador to South Korea; and Gi-Wook Shin, director of APARC.)
What Comes Next
Any optimism expressed by the panelists was further tempered with calls for patience on further progress. “Denuclearization of the North isn’t only difficult, it will take time,” said director Shin. “I want to be optimistic, but I must also be cautious.”
Additionally, change in the North will likely need to happen at a measured pace. “[I]n a place like the North, you can’t move from zero to 100,” said Yun.
Ambassador Stephens looked to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland as a hopeful precedence. While the sentiment of “we’ve tried this before” very much surrounded that process, it ultimately paved the opportunity for a final breakthrough, noted Stephens.
Time will only tell whether the summit is a true success or simply a repeat of the past. At the panel’s conclusion, Shin swapped out the earlier film analogy for one about sports. Comparing the recent diplomacy to a soccer game, Shin observed that “President Moon did a nice pass to Trump. But can Trump now score the goal?”
ABC 7 News reported on the panel event. Watch their coverage.