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3 main takeaways from the historic North Korea-South Korea summit

Hint: There’s a lot of pressure on President Trump now.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in embrace ahead of talk during a historic summit on April 27, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in embrace ahead of talk during a historic summit on April 27, 2018.
Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a historic summit on Friday, potentially setting aside decades of animosity and paving the way for a peace deal that would have been unimaginable even a few months ago.

The two leaders discussed possibly ending North Korea’s ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the US and its allies. They chatted about formally ending the Korean War, which technically continues, by the end of the year. And they ended their nearly nine hours together with a joint statement, putting all those aspirations down on paper.

But that’s not all. They created remarkable scenes, like Kim walking over the border into South Korea. It was the first time a North Korean leader had entered South Korea since the Korean War in the early 1950s. The two leaders even walked side by side on a long red carpet as they inspected an honor guard, later escaping for a private 30-minute chat on a footbridge.

The images, and the meeting, were indeed remarkable — but three main takeaways stand out beyond the pomp and circumstance.

First, Kim and Moon outlined their shared goals, but they didn’t specify how they would achieve them. Second, it’s not clear the South Korean public — which polls show remains skeptical of Kim — would accept the kind of concessions that might be necessary to seal a deal between the countries. And finally, the relative success of the Kim-Moon summit puts a lot of pressure on President Donald Trump, who plans to meet with Kim in late May or early June for negotiations designed to resolve a long nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang.

What follows is a brief guide to the major three takeaways from the Kim-Moon summit.

The Kim-Moon agreement had more style than substance

Kim and Moon signed what’s now known as the “Panmunjom Declaration,” in which both leaders agreed to formally end the Korean War by year’s end and to work toward the “common goal” of denuclearization.

There’s just one problem: There are very few specifics on how to do each of those things. “This agreement is long on ambition and hope and short on details,” Abraham Denmark, a former top Pentagon official focusing on Asia, told me. In other words, the three-page document says what both countries want but not what each would be willing to give to achieve those goals.

Take ending the Korean War, which is technically still going since the warring parties agreed to pause the war — not end it — in 1953. That means China and the US, which respectively backed North Korea and South Korea during the conflict, also must sign a formal peace treaty for the war to officially end. It’s unclear what appetite Beijing and Washington have for that, although Trump seems excited about the prospect: “KOREAN WAR TO END!” he tweeted on Friday morning.

Denuclearization is an even harder problem to resolve. Kim believes North Korea should keep its nuclear program as a safeguard against invasion by South Korea or even America. The US and South Korea, by contrast, want North Korea to dismantle its nuclear sites and stop producing missiles that can hit US allies and even the American mainland.

They also must decide just how North Korea might curb its nuclear program — which takes time to negotiate on its own. “The devil is always in the detail, and in the process,” says Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT. “Denuclearization is a long journey, not an outcome.”

On top of that, the Koreas have struck similar agreements, but to no avail. For example, in 1991, Pyongyang and Seoul promised to end the Korean War but never actually did so. And in 2005, North Korea and five other countries — including the US and South Korea — struck a deal to end Pyongyang’s program in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic openings. Of course, that deal fell through too.

Friday’s joint declaration, though, certainly has value. “It is significant that Kim Jong Un has now committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in writing. It does create the mandate for negotiations on denuclearization,” says Jenny Town, a Koreas expert at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

But for Scott Snyder, a Koreas expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, the toughest part comes next. “There’s lots of aspiration, but time will tell if it can be realized,” he told me.

There’s lots of pressure on Trump now

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plan to meet in late May or early June.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plan to meet in late May or early June.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Experts told me the Kim-Moon summit served as a sort of prelude to the Kim-Trump meeting in late May or early June — which means both leaders will face heightened expectations for their encounter after the relative success of Friday’s summit.

The Kim-Moon agreement “puts a tremendous amount of pressure and expectation on the Kim-Trump summit,” says Denmark. “Seoul will push for an equally optimistic and forward-looking agreement, but Washington will want to focus on specifics and substance.”

That could be a problem. As mentioned above, Washington and Pyongyang are far apart on how to ensure North Korea can never use nuclear weapons against the US or its allies.

According to an April 22 Wall Street Journal report, Trump plans to demand two things of Kim. First, North Korea must dismantle its nuclear program very quickly. And second, Trump won’t lift sanctions on Pyongyang until North Korea has made substantial progress toward that goal.

It’s aggressive, but it makes some sense. In past negotiations, North Korea offered to curb its nuclear program in exchange for economic relief but then backed out or cheated on a deal. Pyongyang is not particularly trustworthy, so Trump wants to see actual progress before he rewards the regime.

”When the president says that he will not make the mistakes of the past, that means the US will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs,” a senior US official told the Wall Street Journal.

But it’s far from clear that Kim would be willing to agree to such demands. He already agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons and missiles that can hit America, but he didn’t say his country will never try out those weapons again or that he would end those programs entirely. It’s possible that Kim will bristle if Trump makes such a big demand of him.

Trump has threatened to walk out of talks with Kim if he finds they aren’t “fruitful.” It’s therefore possible that Trump — and Kim — will walk away empty-handed despite hopes that they reach some sort of substantive agreement.

The Kim-Moon meeting was still very historic

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in celebrate ahead of their talks during a historic summit on April 27, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in celebrate ahead of their talks during a historic summit on April 27, 2018.
Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

The lack of substance and the complications of a Kim-Trump summit take nothing away from the history of the Kim-Moon meeting: “Great optics and historic on many dimensions,” says Narang.

There were extraordinary scenes, like Kim walking into South Korean territory. It was the first time a North Korean leader set foot in South Korea since the Korean War.

They also planted a tree together, spoke privately for 30 minutes on a footbridge, and took photos with their respective delegations. It was only the third time a North Korean and South Korean leader met each other for a summit. The other two times — in 2000 and 2007 — didn’t feature these images of unity and took place in Pyongyang.

It was a ceremony rife with symbolism. Even the meal Kim and Moon shared had meaning. For example, they had seafood from the South Korean city of Busan, where Moon grew up. They also dug into North Korean cold noodles sent to the border from a Pyongyang chef.

It might seem odd, but experts believe stuff like that is important. “The April 27 summit was full of symbolism, imagery, and rhetoric,” Donald Manzullo, president of the Korea Economic Institute, said in a statement. “That should not be brushed aside to look for ‘real’ progress. Symbolism is important in itself.”

Whether the hours of comity will turn into a lasting peace is still an open question — but that didn’t make those hours any less historic.