The two Koreas are to hold summit preparation talks

By Mahasweta Muthusubbarayan

Preparations for an inter-Korean summit scheduled for late April are in full swing, with North and South Korea set to hold summit preparation talks between its top officials on March 29 in the truce village of Panmunjom. It is expected that the meeting will take place at the Tongilgak building on the North Korean side of the demilitarised zone. The proposal for the upcoming preparatory summit was made by South Korea on April 22, through a communication channel in Panmunjom, and was accepted by North Korea on April 24.

Background to the meeting

Most of the effort to make the inter-Korean summit a reality seems to be driven by South Korea, with the North largely maintaining silence on its expectations for the summit. In fact, North Korea’s agreement to the preparation talks is the country’s first serious commitment to the summit taking place.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in had earlier ordered the formation of an Inter-Korean Summit Preparatory Committee, headed by his Chief of Staff Im Jong-Seok, and tasked it with making the diplomatic and practical preparations for the summit. South Korea made the announcement regarding the preparatory talks at a plenary meeting of the Preparatory Committee, following which the formal proposal was dispatched to North Korea. The preparatory talks constitute the first official Inter-Korean meeting since a South Korean delegation’s visit to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month.

South Korea will send a delegation of three members, consisting of the Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon and one representative each from the executive Blue House and the National Intelligence Service. North Korea will also be represented by a team of three officials, led by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of its committee for the peaceful reunification of the country. The preparatory summit is being held with the objective of hammering out some basic details regarding the summit’s schedule, agenda and the invited delegations. According to Im Jong-Seok, the South will propose three key agenda topics. These include the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, securing a permanent peace to ease military tensions and new, bold and innovative ways to take inter-Korean relations forward.

Potential benefits of the preparatory talks

North Korea’s response to the proposed agenda will help the South and the US gauge its commitment to terminating its nuclear weapons programme. North Korea has reportedly stated that it will abandon the programme only if the security of its territory and regime are assured. A successful North-South summit is also a pre-condition to any future successful summit between the North and the US. The North will be more willing to engage and negotiate with its neighbour as opposed to the US. North Korea’s demands at its summit with the South will serve as a hint to the level of co-operation that can be expected from the regime.

North Korea still regards the US with extreme bitterness for bombing its territory during the Korean War and its role in the creation and sustenance of a separate South Korean state. Its attitude towards the US has been fuelled by fears of being unable to defend itself against the American should the Korean War—which was only halted with a truce and not a formal peace treaty—ever resume.

This would also explain Kim Jong-Un’s aggressive weapons programme and rigid foreign policy. The South Korean President has proposed a trilateral summit between the US and the two Koreas if the individual summits turn out to be successful. However, North Korea may very well adopt a conciliatory stance towards its neighbour and a hostile stance towards the US. If such a situation arises, South Korea will find itself in a political dilemma. Any shift from its agreed stance with the US will attract the ire of its ally, while intense rigidity will almost certainly lead to a failure of the talks.

American interests at the summit

The US will be interested in retaining South Korea as a major ally and hence will be watching the inter-Korean summit closely for any signs of a shift in the South’s foreign policy and foreign relations. South Korea has offered to be a diplomatic mediator in US-North Korea relations, but the question is now one of priorities: will South Korea forsake the US in the hope of peace and the future unification of the Korean peninsula?

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