North-South bonhomie raises hopes of denuclearization of Korean Peninsula

North Korea's top leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed at their historic meeting last month on a series of reconciliation steps including the suspension of hostile propaganda broadcasts along their border and the adoption of South Korea's time zone in North Korea, signaling the beginning of the normalization of the relations between the two countries. These amicable steps have also reignited international hope for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, which Kim leads, announced on April 20 that North Korea would stop its nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles staring April 21 and would stay focused on growing the economy. This decree paved the way for Kim's summit with Moon at the village of Panmunjom on the demilitarized zone separating their two countries. The summit was Kim's maiden diplomatic show since he took power in 2011. Ahead of the summit, Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in an unannounced Beijing visit.

The biggest highlight of the Kim-Moon meeting is the picture of Kim holding a hand of Moon and walking across the military demarcation line into the side of North Korea and then back into South Korea's territory.

Li Jiacheng, a researcher of economic transition at Liaoning University, interpreted the border crossing as an icebreaking act that helps resolve the two Koreas' over half-decade long feud, saying that inviting Moon to walk across the military demarcation line showed Kim's political wisdom.

Signs of normalization

After the summit, Kim and Moon signed the historic Panmunjom Declaration, seeking a formal end to the Korean War and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders also issued orders to dismantle the loudspeakers set up for propaganda broadcasts near the demilitarized zone and to unify the time zone. North Korea's clock has been set 30 minutes behind South Korea since Kim created "Pyongyang Time" in 2015.

These moves will reduce the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula, which US President Trump vowed to fight after Pyongyang launched missiles said to be capable of hitting the US mainland.

The summit between Kim and Moon is of historic significance and marks the beginning of the normalization of relations between North Korea and South Korea, said Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University.

Wu Qiang, an expert on the Korean Peninsula affairs, agreed on Zhu's views, saying that the Kim-Moon meeting is of bigger historic significance than that of the first two summits between the then top leaders of the two countries, which took place in 2000 and 2007 respectively.

The first such meeting between North Korea's then top leader Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, and his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-Jung in Pyongyang in 2000 came at a time when North Korea needed Seoul's help to revitalize its economy. But the thawing of the relations came to halt when Kim Jong-il expelled the officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And the second summit between Kim Jong-il and then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 in Pyongyang happened after North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty triggered criticism by the international community. During the summit, the two countries signed the Declaration for Development of North-South Relations and Peace and Prosperity, which was believed to be vacuous.

Wu said that the location and timing of the Kim-Moon summit is different as reflected in the fact that the Panmunjom Declaration not only refers to the normalization of the ties between North Korea and South Korea but also involves the concerns of the international community. And most importantly, the summit is welcomed by the United States and China, the major stakeholders in East Asia.

Wu also said that the normalization of the ties between North Korea and South Korea could help Pyongyang avoid international isolation and enhance its global image damaged by its nuclear provocations, while consolidating the support for the government led by progressive Moon.

Uncertainties persist

The Kim-Moon summit was a prelude to the Kim-Trump summit which is reported to be held in late-May. Some experts said that the agreements about peace and economic exchanges reached during the Kim-Moon summit, which carry a great deal of symbolism, could not become reality until Kim and Trump reach a consensus on the issue of denuclearization.

What's more, China would be a topic at the upcoming Kim-Trump talks. In a March meeting with Kim, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to persuade the North Korean leader to work with Washington to deal with Beijing, Zhu said in a report delivered at the Pangoal Institution, a Chinese think tank, citing sources close to the matter. What Zhu revealed in the report seems to be corroborated by the wording of the Panmunjom Declaration, which explicitly says that the United States, North Korea and South Korea are three parties that will take part in the talks for the peace on the Korean Peninsula, thus increasing the possibility of excluding China from the peace talks.

In South Korea, many conservative politicians show strong distrust about North Korea, saying that it is a country which acts in bad faith. Meanwhile, the agreements reached between Kim and Moon during the summit are at risk of being abandoned by Moon's successor.

The United States, which sees itself as the only patron of South Korea, insists that North Korea should denuclearize itself at one stretch, which is different from the previous consensus reached by South Korea, North Korea, China and Russia that the process of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula can be implemented in a gradual way.

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