The report of the 5th Plenary Meeting is a stark reminder of the depleted role that South Korea plays in negotiations with North Korea. This wasn’t always the case.
Not long ago, South Korea was an important player in nuclear diplomacy. President Moon Jae-in’s outreach around the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics kicked off a promising year that included two inter‐Korean summits. The second of which, in Pyongyang, produced an important military agreement that significantly reduced the likelihood of military escalation along the demilitarized zone. The military agreement was very detailed and laid out mutual, reciprocal steps that North and South Korea quickly implemented. The fine‐grained inter‐Korean military agreement stood in stark contrast to the vaguely worded joint statement from the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore.
After racking up early diplomatic victories in 2018, Seoul had its knees cut out from under it by the failure of the February 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi. South Korea and the United States faced some difficulties getting on the same page in 2018 with the former pushing for more broader relationship improvement with North Korea and the latter prioritizing denuclearization. The tentative draft of the Hanoi joint statement released shortly before the start of the summit indicated that the United States was willing to broaden the scope of diplomacy beyond denuclearization and lift sanctions that were blocking inter‐Korean economic projects. This would have brought Washington and Seoul’s diplomatic strategies into closer alignment.
Instead, the collapse of the Hanoi summit resulted in Kim relegating South Korea to the sidelines and prioritized pressuring the United States to lift sanctions. High‐level contact at the inter‐Korean liaison office in Kaesong ground to a halt, North Korea tested several new types of ballistic missiles and large‐caliber rocket artillery, and North Korea conducted artillery drills near the Northern Limit Line—a violation of the inter‐Korean military agreement. Kim committed to an all‐or‐nothing formula for sanctions relief that only the United States could provide by reversing course on UN sanctions that affected entire sectors of the North Korean economy (seafood, coal, petroleum, etc.).