On Thursday 20 September, the third round of bilateral talks between North and South Korea came to a close. As diplomats returned to their respective departments in Pyongyang and Seoul, they left a signed accord detailing the next steps in a long and slow process of reconciliation. The September Pyongyang Declaration lists several commitments North Korea has taken on in dismantling its nuclear infrastructure.
North Korean leaders promised a shut down of the missile-engine testing facility and launchpad at Tongchang-ri, located in the west coast of North Korea. Pyongyang also said it was willing to permanently close the infamous Yongbyon nuclear site, the facility that produced the country’s first batch of enriched plutonium used in its first atomic weapons test. Additionally, the defense ministers of the two countries signed an important agreement to reduce military tensions along the two sides’ heavily fortified border, in the area known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). According to the deal, beginning 1 November, no-fly zones will be established along the border and both sides will halt artillery and other military drills close to the DMZ separating the two nations. The North and South also agreed to dismantle several of the heavily-armed guard posts they have each constructed inside the DMZ. Lastly, diplomats agreed to create a maritime peace zone in the West Sea (commonly known as the Yellow Sea) that sits between the Korean Peninsula and China.
To oversee the dismantling of nuclear and missile related sites, North Korea has stated it is willing to allow international inspectors into the country. North Korea agreed to allow these inspectors to observe a “permanent dismantlement” of its key missile facilities. Announcing progress made between the two nations, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said that North and South Korea agreed that the Peninsula should turn into a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats.” Moon even claimed that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un requested an additional summit with President Donald Trump in order to speed up the process of denuclearization.
There are a two important points to highlight here:
First off, the most recent summit should ensure that things are not simply dragging on with the North Korea story. Substantial progress continues to be made. As David Ignatius recently wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, the “seeds of a [final] deal” are being planted. True, as many observers have pointed out, the deal has its fair share of ambiguities. Analysts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), for instance, underscored the lack of specifics on many of the declaration’s elements. Commitments are often worthless if not clearly defined. But even taken on the merits of generalities alone, the Pyongyang Declaration is in fact historic, especially considering North Korea’s crucial step of inviting international observers.
Second, North Korea is showing its pressing need (perhaps desperation is a better word) for American cooperation. Kim emphasized that many if not all of his commitments were on condition of U.S. “reciprocation.” Until this point, the U.S. hasn’t really given anything away in terms of substance. The State Department’s position has long been that aid or even easing of sanctions is dependant on total denuclearization. North Korea is trying hard to continue showing progress in the de-nuking direction, in hopes that it can receive something from Washington in return. Perhaps a major milestone—such as the dismantling of a major site under international supervision—will change the administration’s mind.