Editor’s Note: S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney whose commentary on the Korean Peninsula has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Atlantic and Foreign Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
With North Korea, it appears nearly everything is bad news. The denuclearization talks are “stuck.” North Korea’s intermediate-range missile bases are a “great deception.” And the alliance between the United States and South Korea is on the rocks, as “Washington scrambles to slow Seoul’s roll.”
Yet these reports vastly understate the real progress that has been happening on the ground.
Only a year and a half ago, President Donald Trump was threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea. Since then, the tensions across the demilitarized zone have become arguably the lowest since the division of the Korean Peninsula. This progress is laying the critical groundwork for North Korea’s eventual denuclearization. And despite the furrowed-brow talk of the gap in the US-South Korea alliance created by such advances, a closer look suggests there is much less disagreement than meets the eye.
The summit meetings between the leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, held earlier this year, produced 25 specific promises to reduce the military tension between the two Koreas. Today, according to The Hankyoreh newspaper, more than one third of those promises have been kept: the two Koreas have held high-level talks, established a joint liaison office, hosted meetings for families separated across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), agreed to cease all hostilities in air, sea and land, among others. North Korea also destroyed 10 guard posts along the DMZ, effectively moving their military back two kilometers away from the South.
For the first time since the division of the Korean Peninsula, a road was connected through the DMZ, in order for the military personnel of the two Koreas to remove the mines in the area and search for the remains of those who perished during the Korean War. The photo of the soldiers of North and South Korea shaking hands where the roads met is surely one for the history books. And the Joint Security Area is completely disarmed. Instead, North and South Korea will each station approximately 35 “unarmed personnel” in the JSA, which will be open for civilian tourists to visit freely.
All of these developments are significant, but the latest one is a true blockbuster: a joint survey for the Inter-Korean Railway Project. Last week, for the first time in a decade, a South Korean train rolled into North Korea in order to conduct a study on the possibility of connecting North Korea’s decrepit railways to South Korea’s. If completed, the Inter-Korean Railway Project, estimated to cost approximately $35 billion, will be the largest outside investment into North Korea by a wide margin. When the joint survey was announced, Seoul’s stock market soared, with some rail-related companies’ shares jumping by over 20% overnight.
The fact that the Inter-Korean Railway Project is moving forward is a major departure from North Korea’s modus operandi. With the joint survey, North Korea would be revealing the state of its key infrastructure to South Korea – an unprecedented level of openness.
In addition, the survey directly reveals North Korea’s military readiness. Thae Yong-ho, former deputy ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom who defected to South Korea in 2016, previously expressed doubts for North Korea’s willingness to begin the Inter-Korean Railway Project. Thae, one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials who left the country, dismissed the Inter-Korean Railway Project as “empty talk,” noting that previous talk of the Inter-Korean Railway Project in the early 2000s went nowhere.
According to Thae, North Korea had constructed a massive shoreline defense along its east coast. Renovating the Donghae Line – which travels along North Korea’s eastern coastline – would require North Korea to reveal and potentially move its shoreline defense. Yet the joint survey to be conducted includes a South Korean test train traveling along the Donghae Line, which means the survey would expose to South Korea all of North Korea’s battlements along the rail tracks. This is on-the-ground military intelligence one can only dream of acquiring.
The kickoff of the Inter-Korean Railway Project survey also suggests that claims of a rift in the US-South Korea alliance are overblown. Because the survey requires fuel and equipment to be brought into North Korea, it required special approval from the United Nations Security Council to make exception for the UN sanctions over North Korea.
Although the UNSC includes the United States, the survey obtained the exemption from the sanctions. This exemption from sanctions given by the United States is not an accident or oversight. In a working group meeting between the United States and South Korea, Stephen Biegun, special representative for North Korea for the US Department of State, expressed “strong support” for the joint survey.
For some, however, even the good news on North Korea is bad news. Much has been made about the remarks by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said on November 20 that “we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas.”
Many took this remark to mean that US officials were unhappy with the progress in inter-Korean relations, which seems to be moving faster than the progress in North Korea’s denuclearization process. But this concern is oblivious to the fact that, exactly at the same time Pompeo was delivering this remark, Biegun was expressing his support for the railway joint survey to his South Korean counterpart.
In addition, President Trump is pursuing another summit with Kim early next year, shortly after Kim’s planned visit to Seoul. Rather than being displeased with South Korea’s efforts for better relations with North Korea, the United States appears to be backing such efforts, both quietly and loudly.
Further, an improved relationship with North Korea, and a measure of trust built through that process, is not a hindrance but a precondition for denuclearization. Even if North Korea agrees to a concrete schedule of denuclearization, it is impossible for either the United States or South Korea to monitor all corners of North Korea at all times to ensure North Korea is indeed following that schedule. The collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran offers a cautionary tale: even a perfectly workable plan of denuclearization will collapse when the parties begin losing trust in each other.
Obviously, one cannot be naive with North Korea. It is wise to always maintain a measure of healthy skepticism, considering North Korea’s prior behavior in denuclearization negotiations. Yet equally as dangerous as naivete is the cynicism so profound that it denies the real progress being made on the ground.