Moon-Kim summit paves way for peace in Koreas

Moon-Kim summit paves way for peace in Koreas

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (AP/PTI)

April 27, 2018, saw an unprompted DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) dance between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following their historic handshake that the world waited for a decade to see.

The meeting sparked a completely unscripted dance with the two leaders hopping back and forth over the border that divides their nations. After a period of bellicose utterances between US President Donald Trump and Kim, when words such as “fire and fury”, “totally destroy”, “sink Japan” and so on freely flew and took the world to the brink of a nuclear war, the summit between Moon and Kim was a dramatic turnaround.

The historic handshake provided a beautiful photo opportunity to showcase to the world that both the leaders now want peace and take up matters to handle without outside intervention. The Inter-Korean summit talks are aimed at ending their decades-long conflict and came weeks before Kim is due to meet Trump - another historic event. The credit must go to Moon who seized the opportunity when Kim in his New Year address expressed the desire to meet him to discuss issues troubling their nations.

The subsequent PyeongChang Winter Olympics that South Korea hosted provided the right opportunity for Moon to make the first move. He not only invited athletes from the North to participate in the Games but ensured that the athletes from both countries march under a common unification flag in the opening ceremony. Moon also volunteered to cover the total cost of the athletes, including the large contingent of cheerleaders. From North’s side, Kim sent his sister to meet with Moon, a symbolic gesture whose significance was huge. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, was the first member of the Kim family to set foot on the South Korean soil.

After Kim invited Moon to join him over the border, the prolonged clasp between the two lasted almost half a minute, followed by Moon inviting Kim to his presidential Blue House for which Kim had expressed his wish.

Kim Jong-un became the first Northern leader to set foot in the South since Korean War hostilities ceased in 1953. After Kim crossed to the Southern side and shook hands, he beckoned Moon over to the other side, to which Moon initially was hesitant. A friendly and jovial Kim would not take “no” for an answer, grabbing Moon’s hand and accompanying him across the border before they warmly shook hands again. With mild laughter, both then crossed back to the South hand-in-hand, in a remarkable show of unity. This single moment seemed to bury the acrimony of the past years and demonstrated a new phase of bonhomie and unity, a prospect if taken to the logical conclusion would open a new chapter in the Korean peninsula as well as the manner in which international diplomacy can be conducted. International theorists now need to re-examine their approach to this new dimension of diplomacy.

The long handshake was in contrast to the greeting in 2000 between the current leader’s father Kim Jong Il and the then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, which lasted just five seconds. The 2007 version was slightly more muted – three seconds and only one hand as Kim Jong Il welcomed Roh Moo-Hyun in Pyongyang.

Between the last summit and now, North has made considerable advance in its weapons programmes. It conducted the sixth nuclear tests and launched 20 missiles, including two ICBMs which flew over the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, and with a range capable of hitting any part of continental US. At the time of heightening tensions, Pyongyang threatened to unleash the “treasured sword” of its atomic arsenal and turn Seoul and the US into a “sea of flames.”

New history

This time during the summit, Kim jocularly told Moon that he would not disturb anymore his morning sleep, implying that no more missile launches would be made in the unearthly hours. Kim wrote in the guest book in Korean that a new history starts now.

The whirlwind nuclear diplomacy that culminated with the Moon-Kim summit is the precursor to what is going to be seen soon with the Trump-Kim summit, the venue and date of which are yet to be determined.

Denuclearization was high on the agenda. Preceding the inter-Korean summit, North Korea announced a moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches as well as the closure of its main atomic test site. This was a huge concession. All stakeholders welcomed such a gesture by Pyongyang as they perceived this as a precursor to the ultimate goal of achieving denuclearisation.

Trump has been demanding that the North gives up its weapons and pressing for it to do so in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way. Though both Moon and Kim agreed to work out the denuclearisation process, Moon is aware that North’s technological advances with its nuclear and missile programmes meant any deal would be “fundamentally different in nature from denuclearisation agreements in the 1990s and early 2000s”. There is no indication if North’s unspecified security guarantees have been assured.

Thus far, North Korean support for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula means removal of US troops from the South and end of its nuclear umbrella over its security ally, a prospect unthinkable in Washington.

Interestingly, Trump took credit for having put pressure which led Kim to yield for the summit proposal. Notwithstanding what could transpire at the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit, the Panmunjom Declaration sets the tone for the summit between Trump and Kim. The reactions from stakeholders were encouraging.

While South Korean media gave a guarded welcome to the Panmunjom Declaration, it lamented the lack of a firmer commitment to ridding the North of its nuclear weapons. But the announcement by both leaders to pursue a permanent peace treaty and the complete denuclearisation of their divided peninsula look encouraging. While expressing optimism that a nuclear deal with North Korea can be reached when he meets Kim, Trump has also threatened that he will walk out of the meeting if there are signs it “is not going to be fruitful”. One hopes the Trump-Kim summit goes the same way as Moon-Kim summit.


(The writer is former senior fellow, IDSA, and until recently ICCR chair at Reitaku University, Japan)