To try to follow recent events in Korea, you’d have to keep up with diplomatic clashes, evaluate the range of various missiles, compare earthquakes caused by nuclear experiments, and even gawk at the puerile row over who has the largest ‘nuclear buttons’ between Kim and Trump.
So it was emotional Friday when the two Korean leaders met with good intentions and eventually declared that there will be a peace treaty between them by the end of the year — although the denuclearization issue is still up in the air. We must celebrate the handshake between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, Kim’s surprise invitation that Moon step into North Korean territory, and their words that “war is over.”
Then, leaving emotion aside, we must bear in mind that in their final remarks around the hot topic of denuclearization, the two leaders talked mostly about their hopes. They talked about possible economic cooperation between the two Koreas, but it seems that the most difficult aspects of the diplomatic work will be left perhaps to Donald Trump — who is scheduled to meet Kim between the end of May and the beginning of June. It remains a memorable day, for a number of actual and potential reasons.
Kim became the first North Korean leader to cross the border with South Korea — a small step agreed on at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The war ended with an armistice rather than a proper peace agreement. If that happens now, it would be a historic event for the whole region. The South would finally recognize the North.
The main promoter of the new approach between the two Koreas has no doubt been Moon — the South Korean president and former civil rights lawyer, whose parents fled North Korea during the war. Moon had also worked for former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who had started the South’s ‘sunshine policy’ with the North, which encouraged interaction and economic assistance to North Korea to try to soften its attitudes toward the South.
The desire for reunification and for a politics of openness sped up the change.
Friday’s events at Panmunjom seemed impossible just one year ago. Moon has been a patient, skilled strategic mediator. He waited for the right time to ease the tensions: the Winter Olympics. Some issues are still unresolved. After the meeting, South Korea granted that denuclearization would happen, but specific timelines and methods to achieve it are still unknown.
The other great winner of the day is clearly Kim. We have to acknowledge his strategic skills, despite the dictatorial temperament and his tight grip on civil society. In a short time, Kim succeeded where his father and grandfather failed.
Factoring in the internal fights that Kim led to remain in power after his father’s death in 2011, we can see his image of a millennial firmly leading a nuclear power, who has been able to bring Moon, Xi and Trump to the negotiations table. Friday was an all-Korean day, but the day paved the way for larger diplomatic talks involving China and the US. But first, the meeting between Trump and Kim needs to happen.
In the next few days Moon will travel to the US to prepare the ground for the summit. Then, it remains to be seen whether Trump will try to involve Japan, the US’s only fail-safe Asian ally. At that point, Russia may want to attend the meeting too, and the region might return to “six-party talks,” the dialogue among North and South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia between 2003 and 2007.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.