The Kim-Moon summit: fast forward?

President Moon Jae-in’s just-concluded three-day visit to North Korea culminated in an unprecedented but very symbolic visit to Mount Paekdu. As the highest peak on the Korean peninsula at about 9,000 feet, Mount Paektu is the mythical origin of the Korean people, featured in South Korea’s national anthem and various North Korean propaganda. The leaders of the two Koreas, accompanied by their wives, held hands on the highest peak of the Korean Peninsula in what is being termed as one of the most iconic moments in the history of inter-Korean summit diplomacy. The two leaders’ historic trip to the mountain which has a special meaning for the people of the two Koreas reflects two things very clearly that Kim Jong-un is apparently committed to expedite reconciliation of the two Koreas and that he also knows well how to glamorize the whole peace process in the Korean peninsula. This was the third such meeting between the two leaders in this year. Starting with their first summit at the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjeom on April 27, both met for the second time on the northern side of Panmunjeom in May. Now this time Kim Jon-un insisted on a rather long and detailed – three days – series of interactions with his counterpart in Pyongyang.

There is no doubt that President Moon Jae-in’s whirlwind visit has reinforced and bolstered the on-going peace process in a big way. Yes, with the exception of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, there was no concrete and detailed agreement between the two countries over the contentious issues, but still this historic visit has fortified the peace development that started with the Trump-Kim summit in June in Singapore. This visit has more symbolic and emotional relevance – and this is what is actually needed right now between the two Koreas to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and allegiance to offset the impact of seven decades of animosity and tension. During this visit, Kim Jong-un showed many positives gestures towards his guest including opportunity to directly address the people of North Korea – a very motivating and generous gesticulation. Moon’s speech at a mass performance in Pyongyang was the first time for a South Korean head of state to give a public speech to the North Korean people. More than 150,000 citizens were present and President Moon also utilized this opportunity to effectively “sell” his peace overtures.

In addition to hand-shakes, hugs, sight-seeing, concerts, emotional public addresses and lavish state dinners, this visit also provided a booster dose to the march towards a peaceful Korean peninsula. One of the key reasons Moon travelled to Pyongyang was to try to break the current deadlock in the nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States. Kim wants Trump to sign a peace declaration — a concrete pledge that categorically declares the Korean War is over and that America will never attack North Korea — before he makes any nuclear concessions. During their Singapore get-together, Trump promised Kim he would move things forward on this matter very quickly. On the other hand Trump administration, however, insists that Kim must first reduce his nuclear arsenal by 60 to 70 per cent— or offer some other tangible concession — before the US will sign a peace declaration as per the liking of Kim Jong-un. Though during Moon’s visit to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un has offered to dismantle a missile engine testing site and nuclear facility with international inspectors present, but many in the Trump administration are considering it just a cosmetic step that falls short of the US demands. This means the two sides are still at an impasse, with both sides refusing to move until the other side moves first. Still, Trump tweeted his pleasure with Kim’s offer: “Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts. In the meantime there will be no Rocket or Nuclear testing. Hero remains to continue being........”

The two Korean leaders signed which is formally labelled as the “Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018” which reinforces a “sincere” commitment from both sides to improve the inter-Korean ties. The joint declaration encompasses three broader areas of cooperation: military, economic and societal. The most lucid among them is the mutual understanding to withdraw 11 posts from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the official title of the heavily fortified border between the two countries, by the end of 2018. Ever since the 1953 armistice, the Korean War has practically ended, but technically speaking, both countries are still at war, which is why they are compelled to keep troops on the border. Reduction in some of those guard posts would means that both sides have relegated their war-like posture toward each other. Obviously this does not mean the end of the standoff, but it symbolizes a downgrading of belligerency that has enveloped the border for the last seventy years. Another important military-related point of agreement between the two sides is the creation of a joint military committee to help lower tensions at the border and maintain mutual communications in case of an accidental flare-up; disarm a jointly controlled border village, in part by eradicating land mines; and set up a joint search team to search for the remains of troops who fought and died during the war.

By agreeing to connect the East coast and West coast between the two Koreas via rail and road, both have taken a big step towards is also a very significant development towards the establishment of economic and commercial ties between the two countries, as both have agreed to allow the exchange of goods as well as tourists through this connection. They made a mutual promise to reopen — and keep open — a joint industrial site and tourism centre that were both previously closed down over escalating tensions in the past. These steps are definitely going to stimulate their economies and allow Koreans from the North and South to interact with one another more frequently – creating a more congenial atmosphere for a peaceful atmosphere. At the same time, in order to address the long-standing pleas of the separated families, the tourist site, known as the Mount Kumgang Tourism Project, has been selected as a place for the families’ reunion in the future. In an increasingly symbolic tone, both also agreed to jointly bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics – thus capitalizing on the existing goodwill that was created when North Korea sent its athletes to participate in Winter Olympics 2018 in South Korea under common flag.

However, on the diplomatic front, there are two significant steps announced by Kim Jong-un in his meeting with President Moon that also indicates his sincere intentions to reciprocate the peace initiatives of his counterpart from South Korea; one, he committed to visit Seoul by the end of the year, which would be a first for any North Korean leader in last seven decades, and two, he reiterated his intention to meet President Trump “soon” as a follow-up to their Singapore summit. Both these announcements augur well for the long-term sustainability of the peace process in the region. Though some critics in Washington and Seoul, in view of the past habits of North Korea to back out later from earlier promises, are still quite sceptical about how many of these announcements will come to fruition, but there is no denying Moon’s Pyongyang visit has given the much-awaited booster dose to the peace process in general. Most encouraging part is that Kim Jong-un is trying his best, may be cosmetically as some critics claim, to appease President Trump and the American establishment and he is will certainly further concessions, if demanded by Trump, to lessen the tension in the Korean peninsula. The meagre and dwindling economy of North Korea, despite generous Chinese support, is showing the signs of debilitation with each passing day and Kim Jong-un knows it very well that he will not be able to sustain without a rapprochement with Seoul and Washington in the coming days. This is perhaps the most reassuring factor for Trump to carry on with his blatantly brash diplomatic bid on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

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