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Human Freedom experts reflect on the North Korea-South Korea Summit

Deputy Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative Lindsay Lloyd, and Manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative Jieun Pyun sat down to discuss the historic summit between North and South Korean leaders. Below is a snapshot of their conversation.

Article by Ioanna Papas and Miriam Spradling April 27, 2018 //   8 minute read

Deputy Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative Lindsay Lloyd, and Manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative Jieun Pyun sat down to discuss the historic summit between North and South Korean leaders. Below is a snapshot of their conversation. 

North and South Korea have had peace talks in the past. What is the difference between Friday’s summit and the previous ones? 

Lindsay Lloyd: I would point to a couple of things. 1) Tensions have not been this high in decades between North Korea and the rest of the world. 2) The fact that President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un met is a positive thing given how ratcheted up tensions have been. 3) The pledge that President Moon and Kim made to reach a peace settlement is something that has been talked about before. It’s very difficult to get there, but it’s an encouraging development.  

Jieun Pyun: This is our third summit between the two countries, and in the past, the South Korean president always went to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, for the meeting. This is the first time North Korea’s leader has ever crossed the border to South Korea. This has significant meaning. Also, the timing of this summit is important. The first two summits happened at the end of the South Korean presidents’ administrations. One of the things South Korea tried to do differently this time, was to have the summit at the beginning of President Moon’s administration to ensure the administration has enough time to carry out the agreement. 

LL: I have a question for Jieun. As a South Korean how do you and the country perceive this meeting? 

JP: I think generally people are happy to see that we are talking about peace rather than potential war. But as Lindsay said, last year and the beginning of this year the tone and dialogue were different. This is also not the first time that we have seen agreements like this between the North and South, so people hope that this time peace comes out of the conversations. 

Personally, I want to be optimistic. You need to be optimistic in order for your country to move in a better direction. 

How should the public look at these meetings, declarations, and promises? 

LL: There have been a lot of attempts to resolve these issues in the past, and they have fallen apart because North Korea has fallen back on their word. They sign an agreement to stop nuclear development or restrict military action and in a period of months or years they reverse course. President Ronald Reagan always used the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” Your adversary is not always acting honorably. 

JP: I agree. I think if you look at the agreement from the summit, lots of things are conditional. The North and South agreed to talk about this and work on denuclearization, but there is a lot of work ahead. They did not set a final agreement. 

I think the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un [expected to occur in June] will become more important, and I think South and North Korea realize that too. If you look at their recent agreement, it almost sounds like they first need to sit down with the United States to say anything with certainty. And, this is why we need to be cautiously optimistic. There is an understanding about denuclearization between President Moon and Kim, but the understanding between President Trump and Kim may be different. Kim sounds like he is looking at a more gradual denuclearization, and President Trump is looking for a faster process. These won’t be easy discussions. 

LL: I agree with Jieun. The agreement is vague. It is a lot of “we will work toward” and “we intend to.” Reaching a more permanent, comprehensive agreement is going to take time. Consultations with the U.S. are vital so that the U.S. and the Republic of Korea are on the same page. It’s also really important that other regional powers, particularly Japan, are part of this process. Japan’s interests need to be taken into account. There is a lot of work ahead. 

Human rights abuses in North Korea are still a problem and did not seem to be a highlight of the conversations. Should these be included in the discussions moving forward and why? 

LL: Yes, human rights abuses should absolutely be part of the conversation. That’s what we’ve been arguing at the Bush Center for several years. Just yesterday the parents of Otto Warmbier filed a lawsuit for the torture and death of their son when he was held prisoner in North Korea. We also know there are at least three Americans currently being held prisoner in North Korea. All of that has to be part of the conversation. More importantly, the conditions of the North Korean people need to be part of the conversation. Human rights abuses occur on an epic scale and are linked to the country’s military position. They use human rights abuses to fund their nuclear project. In terms of the conversation that happened yesterday, one human rights issue that came up was family reunification, which is important. It sounds like both sides are committed to taking steps to relieve that, which is a good thing. 

The issue of human rights in North Korea is an unusual one in the United States because Republicans and Democrats broadly agree. The United States has always stood for universal human rights. That is who we are as a country. 

JP: I think the United States can play a vital role in human rights issues and make sure they are included in the process. It needs to be one of the key agenda items when President Trump and Kim meet. As Lindsay said, this is something liberals and conservatives in the United States can agree on. In South Korea, it is a highly polarized issue. 

Both parties have the same goals -- peace on the peninsula -- but the conservatives in South Korea see the Kim regime as the enemy, while the liberals see them as partners. Liberals try not to put human rights issues at the top of the agenda because that’s the one item that bothers North Korean leadership the most. If you put that as the first agenda item, you would not see summits like we saw yesterday. That’s because North Korea would never come to the table. 

It’s hard for the South Korean government to be vocal on human rights abuses, but they can play a role in family reunification. By having more frequent family reunions and opening up relationships in terms of cultural and economic exchange that can contribute in different ways to the human rights issues. But the United States has no problem including human rights issues in the summit agenda. So I think this needs to be considered a top priority for the summit between President Trump and Kim. If the U.S. doesn’t do it, no other country will.