Are US-NK, inter-Korean relations headed back to pre-Panmunjom Declaration days?

Posted on : 2022-05-23 17:38 KST Modified on : 2022-05-23 17:38 KST
The conspicuous absence of references to joint declarations, and the presence of emphasis on areas Pyongyang has consistently objected to, could put ties with the North back to the pre-2018 era
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden receive a briefing while visiting the Korean Air and Space Operations Center at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on May 22. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden receive a briefing while visiting the Korean Air and Space Operations Center at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on May 22. (Yonhap News)

The joint statement announced after the South Korea-US summit Saturday showed a few clear differences from the previous one in Washington that was adopted exactly one year earlier on May 21, 2021.

A notable example was the omission of any reference to the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, both of which were included in the 2021 statement.

In their place was a visible emphasis on areas that Pyongyang has historically voiced strong objections to, including extended deterrence, a stronger combined defense posture, and the deployment of strategic assets. Analysts read this as a sign that the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula is rapidly returning to its state prior to the dialogue that commenced in 2018.

In the statement following their joint summit in May 2021, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden reaffirmed their “common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

This sent the message to Pyongyang that they intended to proceed with future talks on the basis of current agreements, which positioned denuclearization as an ultimate outcome of dialogue and negotiation rather than a prerequisite for them.

But that content was absent from the latest joint statement by Biden and current President Yoon Suk-yeol, which instead made reference to a shared awareness of the threat posed by the North, condemning shows of military force and coordinating with the international community while urging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

The statement also laid out the specific components of the military response to the North Korean “threat.” These included “extended deterrence commitment to the ROK” using “nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities,” as well as expanding the “scope and scale of combined military exercises and training” and “deploy[ing] strategic US military assets in a timely and coordinated manner.”

While stressing that the “path to dialogue remains open,” the latest statement emphasized the sort of content that North Korea has consistently referred to as “hostile.” In effect, any rationale for Pyongyang to agree to dialogue has been removed.

Biden made no secret of his frosty attitude toward North Korea.

At his Seoul Hyatt accommodations on Sunday morning, Biden was asked by a reporter whether he had any message for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“‘Hello.’” he replied. “Period.”

His curt reply was seen as signaling his unwillingness to take more active steps to encourage Pyongyang to take part in dialogue.

In a post-summit press conference the day before, Biden was also asked about his “preconditions” for meeting with North Korea.

“[T]hat would be dependent on whether [Kim Jong-un] was sincere and whether it was serious,” he said, in a response that recalled the “strategic patience” approach to North Korea policy adopted by the Obama administration.

Based on a combination of sanctions against the North and an emphasis on China’s role, the strategic patience approach consisted of an attempt to draw Pyongyang into dialogue while maintaining a certain level of pressure.

Over the eight years of the Obama presidency, North Korea made considerable progress with its nuclear and missile capabilities, including four nuclear tests. The Obama administration was unable to prevent that from happening — its only answer coming in the form of five separate UNSC resolutions sanctioning the North.

US news outlets also concluded that the latest summit’s outcome showed Biden’s attitude to be more or less consistent with the strategic patience approach, and that both the South Korean and US leaders had changed course from their predecessors.

“The Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement were respectively the achievements of the Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump administrations,” explained a foreign affairs and national security source involved in preparations for the South Korea-US summit last year.

“With the Yoon Suk-yeol administration having just taken office and the Biden administration looking ahead to the midterm elections, there’s no political motivation for either of them to rate [those declarations] highly,” the source suggested.

“With US-China and US-Russia relations souring, additional nuclear tests by North Korea could create a situation that’s even more dangerous than the one prior to 2018,” they commented.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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