North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged on Wednesday to visit Seoul for the first time but made no concrete pledges on the dismantling of his nuclear program at the end of a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang.
In a joint news conference, the two leaders pledged to end hostility and usher in a “new era of peace and prosperity,” but there was very little of substance to move the process of denuclearization forward, experts said.
The talks were supposed to pave the way for a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump later this year, but experts said it was far from clear that Kim had made concessions that would make a summit an attractive proposition for the U.S. leader.
In a joint statement, North Korea pledged to “permanently dismantle” a missile engine test site and missile launcher at Tongchang-ri “in the presence of experts from related countries.” That is a site the North Koreans had already pledged to dismantle and doesn’t amount to a major new concession, experts said.
North Korea also “expressed the will to continue taking further steps like permanent dismantlement” of its main Yongbyon nuclear facility but only if the United States takes “corresponding steps” based on Trump’s agreement with Kim at their June summit in Singapore.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., told South Korea’s Arirang TV that these promises were “extremely vague” and didn’t amount to denuclearization, especially because Kim’s regime was continuing to manufacture nuclear weapons this year.
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “What Washington has been looking for is action.”
Moon’s arrival Tuesday in Pyongyang had been awash in pomp and flattery as he embraced Kim Jong Un and lavished praise on the North Korean leader to begin their third summit this year.
They agreed to set up a buffer zone in the Yellow Sea to suspend firing of guns and maritime drills, as well as a no-fly zone in border areas to prevent accidental plane clashes.
But more ambitious was Moon’s attempt to remove an impasse between Pyongyang and Washington over who should make the next move in their dialogue about detente and denuclearization.
On that score, there appeared to be no progress — the North’s pledge to consider closing Yongbyon was clearly conditional on further action from the United States.
The United States wants North Korea to take a meaningful step toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang, however, is pushing for the United States to declare the 1950-53 Korean War formally over and claims Trump made a promise to that effect in Singapore.
It was the first time since October 2007 — and only the third time since the division of the peninsula more than six decades ago — that a South Korean leader visited the North Korean capital.
On Tuesday, Moon spoke grandly of a new era of cooperation between the two Koreas that would “cut through continents and reach around the world.”
“This is the beginning. We can create a future that no one has experienced yet,” he said at a dinner. “For this, Chairman Kim and I will put our heads and minds together.”
Kim said the two men were on a path of peace and unification “without stopping.” He expressed his “deep gratitude” to Moon for his outreach despite the obstacles.
Moon admitted that it would be hard to reach an agreement on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but said the two leaders enjoyed “trust and friendship.”
He even compared the way they had held hands when they first met in April to an “affectionate couple.”
“If we put ourselves in another’s shoes, be understanding and considerate toward each other, there won’t be any difficulties we cannot overcome,” he said.
When he arrived at Pyongyang’s airport with his wife, Kim Jung-sook, Moon was greeted warmly by the North Korean leader and his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
A military band played, and several hundred guests frantically cheered and waved flags that included the image of a unified Korean Peninsula.
The leaders then inspected a military guard and stood on a podium as goose-stepping troops marched past. Moon waved to and even shook hands with some members of the crowd, appearing genuinely moved by the reception — even though it was carefully staged by the most repressive regime on the planet.
Later, Moon and Kim drove through the streets, past more cheering crowds chanting “Unification! Unification!” They started in separate cars before joining each other in a single open-top car, Moon saluting the crowds enthusiastically and beaming broadly.
He later said he was surprised to see how developed Pyongyang was. There was no hint of concerns about its human rights record.
“I could see Chairman Kim’s leadership and accomplishment in his attempt to improve the lives of the people through developing science and the economy,” Moon said at the dinner.
Kim appeared marginally more grounded in reality as he escorted Moon to his lodgings at a state guesthouse earlier in the day.
“Mr. President visits many countries around the world. Compared with developed countries, we are a bit shabby,” Kim said, according to a pool report, adding that although the accommodation and itinerary might be “subpar,” they were presented “with our best sincerity.”
Moon’s first summit with Kim in April unleashed a wave of optimism in South Korea about the prospects for peace across the peninsula, but the good feelings have waned as the scale of the task ahead has become more obvious.
And Moon’s popularity has fallen sharply, albeit largely because of a rising unemployment rate and soaring property prices.
Moon brought with him an entourage including the heads of some of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, as well K-pop stars. The two Koreas agreed to compete together at the Olympics from 2020 and make a joint bid to hold the Summer Games in 2032.
Business leaders sought to underscore the potential economic rewards for North Korea should it denuclearize, although deals cannot be made unless U.S.-led sanctions are lifted.