Summit diplomacy has become routine in modern day international relations; so many summit meetings take place, almost every other week, though few of these kinds of meetings make for breakthroughs in the most difficult questions facing the world.
Nonetheless, there are exceptions, which are historic in nature, in the sense that they mark a turning point in the course of history. In this context, they represent defining moments and transformative encounters of high strategic relevance to peace and security around the world.
The summit meeting between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea that took place in the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas last Friday, 27 April, is definitely an example of a truly historic summit.
It reminds us of the unprecedented summit between Chairman Mao Ze Dong of Red China and former US president Richard Nixon back in the early 1970s, a summit that changed the face of the world in the second half of the 20th century and contributed to a safer world.
The Panmunjon Summit, although it did not bring two great powers face-to-face, is no less significant in its long-term impact and promise for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia, and the Asia-Pacific Rim.
The stakes as far as this summit is concerned are very high, for the great powers, the United States, Russia and China, as well as to their respective allies, for instance Japan and to the two Koreas.
Only six months ago, the world had watched, helplessly, the dire threats exchanged between Washington and Pyongyang of a nuclear holocaust on the Korean Peninsula.
The bellicose rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim did nothing to assuage growing fears of a major military conflagration in Northeast Asia.
To make matters worse, the world did not have enough confidence that the two leaders knew where to draw the line between rhetorical war mongering and the brink of complete annihilation of the two Koreas.
The inter-Korea summit of last Friday put to rest those fears, at least for the foreseeable future.
The summit could prove to be a turning point in inter-Korean relations and pave the way for transforming the Armistice of 1953 into a peace treaty that would be based, partly, on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Judging from the remarks exchanged between the two Korean leaders and other world leaders, there seems to be the political will to turn the page, and for good, on the results of the Korean War of 1950-1953, for the two Koreas and the great and regional powers as well.
After crossing over to the South Korean part of the Demilitarised Zone, Kim Jong-un said, “I believe the people in the South and North will also be able to walk the road I walked today, and that Panmunjom, which represents the pain of our nation, will be able to enjoy prosperity, after the South and North become one, as they were before.”
And to stress the historic significance of the first North Korean leader to set foot in the Demilitarised Zone since 1953, Kim wrote in the guestbook at Peace House, where the inter-Korea summit took place that a “new history starts now – at the starting point of history and the era of peace.”
The Panmunjeon Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and the Unification of the Korean Peninsula of 27 April spoke of a “momentous period of historical transformation”, and that the two Koreas are boldly approaching a “new era of national reconciliation”.
Moreover, Seoul and Pyongyang committed to “actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid regime of [peace] on the Korean Peninsula, bringing an end to the unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula.
In this respect, the declaration reaffirmed the Non-Aggression Agreement that precludes the use of force in any form against each other.
Recognising the fact that peace on the Peninsula is not only an internal Korean affair but has international and regional dimensions and ramifications, the two Korean leaders committed to “actively pursue meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the war, and turning the armistice into a peace treaty… ”
On the other hand, and no less important, the two Koreas confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
In other words, denuclearisation will be treated by Seoul and Pyongyang as a two-way street.
Not only would North Korea denuclearise, but also the whole Korean Peninsula would become free of nuclear weapons. That is to say, no more American nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The inter-Korea summit of Panmunjeon has laid the groundwork for another expected defining and transformative summit that will bring face-to-face, and for the first time in American-North Korean relations, President Trump and Chairman Kim in the next few weeks, probably in Singapore according to the latest press reports.
Whereas the Panmunjeon summit meeting dealt with inter-Korean relations, peace on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearisation question, the American administration is approaching the summit with Chairman Kim only in the context of a one-sided denuclearisation of North Korea. Not only this, but the White House wants a rapid denuclearisation on the part of Pyongyang.
And as new Secretary of State Mark Pompeo pointed out, in his first press availability in Brussels on Friday, 27 April, the aims of the US administration remain the same, namely the “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programmes without delay”.
Furthermore, he stressed that the “maximum pressure” campaign launched by Washington last year, targeting North Korea, would remain in place.
The inter-Korea summit, a watershed development of regional and worldwide significance, has changed the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific Rim.
In this framework, the US administration should approach the American-North Korean summit from a wider perspective, other than the denuclearisation of North Korea.
The road to a peace treaty between North and South Korea and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is still a long one; however, the Panmunjeon Declaration could be a good starting point to initiate bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral processes that would take all interested powers to this final destination.
President Trump should not view his coming talks with Kim Jong-un as a zero-sum game. He should turn it into a win-win situation for the United States and North Korea, as well as China, Russia and Japan. What the world needs, in this respect, is creative diplomacy of the highest order.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly