Op-Ed: Nice try, North Korea and South Korea, but your pledges are airy, empty confections

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, speaks as South Korean President Moon Jae-in listens at the b
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, speaks as South Korean President Moon Jae-in listens at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on April 27.
(Associated Press)

Friday’s summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was historic, impressive and inspiring. The pageantry and pledges — in the form of the Panmunjom Declaration — were an uplifting show of Korean reconciliation.

Kim maintained his rapid-fire charm offensive over the weekend, announcing his willingness to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear test site under international supervision and his intention to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He also suggested that Pyongyang wouldn’t need nuclear weapons if Washington signed a peace treaty and nonaggression pledge.

But when I read the Panmunjom Declaration, and reread the many North Korean pledges of the last 40 years, I come away feeling a lot like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.

Friday’s declaration is replete with generalities and bereft of detailed plans or commitments, particularly on denuclearization. Its boilerplate language and ideas have been lifted from previous agreements and joint statements, in 1972, 1992, 2000 and 2007. Can Moon and Kim be penalized for plagiarism?


A recommitment to worthy goals of nonaggression and denuclearization is commendable, but North Korea has famously broken its previous pledges. Seoul and Washington must maintain sanctions against the North, and military deterrence, until Pyongyang proves it has truly altered its modus operandi. When you’re approaching the altar with a serial philanderer, it’s best to keep the divorce lawyer on speed dial.

When you’re approaching the altar with a serial philanderer, it’s best to keep the divorce lawyer on speed dial.

In the Panmunjom Declaration, Moon and Kim committed their countries to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other.” Indeed, the two leaders “solemnly declared” that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.” But in 1972, the Koreas futilely agreed to “implement appropriate measures to stop military provocation which may lead to unintended military conflict.” In 1992, they vowed not to “use force against each other [or] undertake armed aggression against each other.” In 2007, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to “adhere strictly to their obligation to nonaggression.”

None of those pledges constrained North Korea from conducting assassination attempts on the South Korean president, terrorist acts, military and cyber attacks and acts of war.


Moon’s strategy has focused on improving inter-Korean relations, striving toward peace and resuming South Korean economic largesse to the North, while only paying lip service to more substantive and difficult issues such as denuclearization. He’s playing good cop and punting the onerous duties of bad cop to the United States.

In that role, President Trump at his prospective summit meeting with Kim, should press for an unambiguous commitment to the complete abandonment of nuclear weapons in the North. That requirement in itself may torpedo the Panmunjom euphoria. Will the South blame Kim’s intransigence or Washington’s rigidity for derailing the latest chance at Korean reconciliation?

Moon, who was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, has resurrected several of Roh’s controversial 2007 Korean summit ideas: turning “the areas near the Northern Limit into a “maritime peace zone” and implementing South Korean-funded economic projects “to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.”

The maritime zone met resistance in 2007 because it appears to cede South Korean fishing rights in the crab- and fish-rich West Sea area along with South Korean sovereignty in an area defended at cost of life by the South Korean navy. The long list of balanced-economic-growth infrastructure projects requires extremely unbalanced transfers of South Korean wealth to the North — which younger South Koreans particularly object to — and they are arguably in violation of U.N. resolutions and U.S. law.

The Panmunjom Declaration doesn’t address denuclearization — the main impediment to reducing tension and enabling Korean reconciliation — until its penultimate paragraph.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are, of course, already in violation of its commitment to the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As in other subsequent inter-Korean agreements, this one refrains from pointing that out. Instead it pledges both Koreas to “carry out their respective roles and responsibilities” under the agreements. The North is praised for “very meaningful and crucial” measures related to denuclearization, presumably a reference to the April announcement that Kim would refrain from nuclear and missile testing, which North Korea long ago had agreed not to do.

Perhaps this round of Korean summits will be truly different. We should remain hopeful that diplomacy, military deterrence, sanctions and the process of confronting North Korea over its human rights violations will achieve denuclearization and a peace treaty to end the Korean War. But the one agreement to come out of recent negotiations so far is no more than a guilty pleasure, an airy confection, appealing but lacking in meaningful substance.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. He previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea.


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