The news that the two Koreas have agreed to schedule a third meeting between their leaders in Pyongyang in September raises a number of questions. The first is why the two sides have not yet announced dates for the meeting.
The joint press statement for the high-level inter-Korean talks held Monday at Panmunjom said only that President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would meet in Pyongyang in September.
More baffling is the strong indication from the North Korean chief delegate, Ri Son-gwon, that the two sides had in fact decided when to hold the Pyongyang meeting. He even told reporters that the dates were “all set” and that an announcement was being withheld only to keep reporters in suspense.
This ran contrary to expectations that the two sides would easily agree on dates and promptly announce them. On Sunday, a Cheong Wa Dae spokesman hinted that there had been some communication between the two sides, saying he expected Monday’s talks to result in agreement on the dates of the planned summit, the venue, and even the size of the southern delegation. He said there were “grounds” for anticipating those things.
That added fuel to speculation that the two sides had already agreed to set up the Moon-Kim meeting either late this month or early next month.
The same Cheong Wa Dae spokesman said after Monday’s high-level talks that it would be difficult for the two leaders to meet early next month, indicating that the meeting might take place in mid-September or later.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who headed the southern delegation to Monday’s high-level talks, also said the two sides would consider various factors when setting the dates. But this falls far short of an adequate explanation for the failure to announce the dates to the public.
The length of the press statement -- just three paragraphs -- is another source of questions. It seems like one more indication that the two sides had differences over key issues and decided to conceal from the public much of what they had discussed.
The high-level talks drew keen attention not only because they laid the groundwork for the third meeting between Moon and Kim, but also because of the timing -- they coincided with a deadlock in the progress of denuclearization work between the North and the US.
The joint statement was disappointing in that the two sides mentioned only the planned summit and the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration, which Moon and Kim signed after their first summit in April.
A bigger cause for concern is the possibility that the South and the North might team up to put pressure on the US to accept one of the North’s key demands: an early declaration of the end of the Korean War.
On the day of the high-level inter-Korean talks, the North’s state media repeated Pyongyang’s demand that the US and South Korea stop sanctions against the North, that they stop pressuring the North, and that they agree to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon had already expressed his hopes for such a declaration by the end of this year.
As this paper has already stated, it would be good for the concerned parties -- the two Koreas, the US and possibly China -- to formally end the Korean War and replace the armistice agreement with a permanent peace regime. What should not be forgotten is that there is a non-negotiable precondition for any such process -- the complete denuclearization of the North.
It is against this backdrop that the Pyongyang summit is set to unfold. Plans for the summit should not provide a chance for Kim to enlist Moon’s help in pushing for an end to the Korean War in the absence of any tangible progress in the denuclearization talks between the US and the North.
The lack of progress on denuclearization is also a call for Moon to pay closer attention to the denuclearization efforts, and to make sure that inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation programs do not breach the UN-led sanctions against the North.