When North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in stood at the peak of the locally venerated Paektu Mountain in North Korea, near the Chinese border, and held their raised hands together, the symbolism was powerful: the two Koreas could, and would, work together.
The gesture, at the end of a more diplomatic than geographic summit, signified success. Importantly, Kim committed North Korea to a verifiable denuclearisation program, starting with dismantling a key missile test site and launching pad.
The meeting between Kim and Moon followed a lower level but also important meeting on Wednesday between South Korea’s Defence Minister, Song Young-moo, and North Korea’s Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, No Kwang Chol. That meeting agreed to reduce military tension between the two Koreas along their border, one of the most heavily fortified in the world.
However, where such a commitment had stumbled with the US, it could again stumble. North Korea will denuclearise conditional to the US taking unspecified but corresponding measures.
Many critics have suggested that North Korea would dismantle old nuclear facilities simply to build newer ones. Similarly, US intelligence reports claim that North Korea has maintained its earlier nuclear strike capacity, despite what were thought to have been productive talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump in June.
This time, however, North Korea has agreed to independent international verification. It is likely, though, that North Korea will want the US to leave South Korea, withdrawing its 28,000 troops and related hardware.
Trump came to office promising to draw down on US international military commitments, expecting other countries to do more to defend themselves. North Korea’s conditionality, then, plays perfectly to such a policy.
The glitch is that the wider US administration is likely to be more reluctant to draw down its military presence than Trump’s earlier rhetoric had suggested. And, as we now know, Trump’s capacity to make decisions is limited by the extent to which his staff allow documents to be on his desk.
Moon was elected to office on a platform of seeking resolution with North Korea. He has long been uncomfortable with, if not in direct opposition to, the way in which the US has conducted its more confrontational Korean policy.
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This in turn reflects the difference between high-stakes grandstanding, perilously close to the brink of war, and who would suffer the direct consequences of such a war. While North Korea retains a nominal capacity to strike at mainland United States, the consequences of warfare for both North and South Korea are vastly greater.
For the two Koreas, sabre-rattling is not an exercise in one-upmanship, but potentially deadly positioning. Both sides know that if the threshold is crossed the consequences would be devastating for both sides. In any conflict resolution process, there needs to be an outcome that both parties can live with. In this, the US has been an important strategic actor but, for the Koreas, that time is increasingly passing.
Assuming there is further movement towards a genuine settlement, neither side will get all that it wants. But each may get enough, however that might variously be defined as strategic security, economic aid, or other forms of mutual cooperation.
Both North and South Korea need to be able to reach an agreement in which both can portray themselves as sufficient, if not absolute, winners. But, behind it all, there is the compelling logic that the existing state of affairs remain dangerous.
Both sides know that, in war, no one wins; it is simply a question of who loses least badly. Both stand to suffer greatly. The incentive, then, to find a way forward, whereby both countries can co-exist, is compelling.
The prospect of success in achieving a long-term peaceful outcome is, therefore, increasingly likely. That peaceful outcome is likely if the US does not interfere, and so long as it agrees with the wishes of the people who lives are on the line.
Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University.