- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A: John Park

| Summer 2018

The Possible Impact of Korean Talks

Following the adoption of the Panmunjom Declaration by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in April, in which they announced their interest in ending the Korean War and ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, the Belfer Center’s John Park spoke to the Harvard Gazette about the potential impact of their announcement. Park, Director of the Center’s Korea Working Group, discussed what’s driving the Panmunjom talks, the likely outcome of a possible accord, and what both sides will have to overcome to deliver lasting results. Following are excerpts from the interview.

GAZETTE: As someone who’s spent many years studying this region, were you surprised by this announcement?

PARK: I think the Panmunjom Declaration is very consistent with previous inter-Korean agreements. These landmark agreements have similar language, so I think it more fits a pattern rather than being an outlier. However, after the elevated tensions last year resulting from North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing, the Panmunjom Declaration is a particularly welcome development.

GAZETTE: Why now?

PARK: There’s a big debate about why now. At the core of that debate is whether Chairman Kim Jong-un agreed to the summit meetings out of a position of weakness (i.e., sanctions biting hard) or strength (advanced nuclear weapons development). I argue that Kim did so out of a sense of unique opportunity to explore what South Korean and American leaders are prepared to offer for denuclearization. President Moon Jae-in assumed most of the risk by investing a lot of South Korea’s political capital to accelerate the momentum for a diplomatic off-ramp with the summit.

GAZETTE: So it was South Korea’s efforts that really moved the ball here?

PARK: Seeing how dangerous the situation became on the Korean Peninsula last year, with an elevated risk of military conflict, President Moon acted swiftly in deploying South Korea’s political capital. The game plan began with arranging North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, quickly followed by a senior South Korean delegation’s meeting with Chairman Kim in Pyongyang. That was followed by the South Korean national security adviser’s meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office, where he agreed to a summit with Chairman Kim.

GAZETTE: Is this a legitimate diplomatic breakthrough, or merely for show?

PARK: It has to be viewed through the perspective of a process. The notion of tackling these very contentious issues, moving from an armistice to a peace treaty and also from the current state of nuclear weapons development in North Korea to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula — all of these things are incredibly complex. But we’re looking at it from the perspective now of what kind of process can be put in place so that these difficult issues can be resolved in a way that can meet the security needs of all the countries involved.

GAZETTE: What will you be looking for to see whether this is more than just a splashy event from the summit?

PARK: This is just the beginning. Whether it’s a short-lived process or something that gains momentum remains to be seen. However, we have a planned U.S.-North Korea summit coming up next. I think from what’s been agreed to in the inter-Korean context, more on the side of principles and goals and aspirations, we now have a nascent foundation on which the U.S. and North Korean leaders can get into more of the details of what a denuclearization mechanism may look like.

To read the Gazette’s full interview with Park, visit belfercenter.org/ParkGazette.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Park, John. "The Possible Impact of Korean Talks." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Spring 2018).