The world is awaiting the June 12 summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But the Koreas already have moved beyond the summit’s predicted narrow focus on denuclearization. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are starting a rapprochement process that, if successful, would fundamentally transform the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia at large. This process is likely to continue regardless of the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit.
To explain why both Koreas have begun this process, we need to understand what Moon wants to achieve. He sees inter-Korean trade and investment links as the best guarantee for a peaceful and stable Korean Peninsula. His rationale is that this would necessarily change Pyongyang’s strategic calculus as the economies of South and North become intertwined.
On the other side of the 38th Parallel, North Korea has the most important of reasons to improve relations with South Korea: money. The economic reform process launched by Kim can be successful only with outside investment and expertise. No one is better placed to offer this than South Korea. Its chaebols and other business enterprises are looking for investment opportunities. They see North Korea as a logical market and production base.
Meanwhile, government departments at all levels, universities and non-governmental organizations across the country stand ready to train North Koreans in everything from the functioning of a capitalist economy to more efficient agricultural practices.
The result of improving inter-Korean relations is that a return to maximum pressure against the North is extremely unlikely even if the Trump-Kim summit fails. There is no appetite for it in South Korea. China and Russia also are making their own moves to benefit from any economic opening up that North Korea could be about to undergo. Russia has invited Kim to visit in September, and China already has eased restrictions on the flow of goods and people across the Sino-North Korean border.
United Nations and bilateral sanctions are, of course, the main impediment to full-blown inter-Korean relations. However, sanctions have their limits. This year, for the first time, Kim set foot in South Korea, and he made two visits to China. His sister Kim Yo-jong attended the Winter Olympics in Seoul. And Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, met with President Trump in Washington last week. None of these visits should have been allowed under the sanctions regime.
Meanwhile, military leaders from both Koreas have scheduled their own summit for June 14. Cultural exchanges have resumed, and family reunions should do so soon.
Economic exchanges can take place even if the current sanctions on North Korea remain in place. Sectors such as tourism, which North Korea is trying to promote, are not covered by the sanctions regime. Aid can be used to transfer medical or agricultural equipment. Waivers can be applied in areas such as infrastructure building. The South Korean government already is drawing plans to improve inter-Korean trade and investment under different sanctions scenarios.
What we are witnessing in the Korean Peninsula is the beginning of the potential transformation of the geopolitics of the region. Interconnectedness between the Koreas would reduce regional tensions. A peace agreement including both, as per the Panmunjom Declaration, would change the psychology of this remaining hotspot of Cold War hostility.
If this happens, questions would arise about the presence of U.S. military troops in the Korean Peninsula, even though Kim has indicated that this is not a top concern of his. A Japan that remains bent on applying pressure on North Korea would look out of place. The economic dynamics of the region would change; North Korea would become integrated in regional economic flows, and South Korea would be linked to China and Russia by road.
This geopolitical realignment is likely to start to happen soon. The Koreas have made a choice to improve their relationship. Support from South Korean citizens means this choice is likely to survive the end of Moon’s presidency in four years. Kim, meanwhile, has made economic reform one of his signature policies, presumably to retain power.
All of this the United States should consider as the Trump-Kim summit approaches, since its own interests in Northeast Asia are affected by the choice Seoul and Pyongyang have made.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, a Dutch-speaking, internationally-oriented university in Brussels, Belgium, and senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London.