For such a significant diplomatic breakthrough, the most memorable moments when the leaders of the two Koreas met last Friday were the simplest, most ordinary, gestures.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un literally stepping over the military demarcation line to become the first leader of Pyongyang to cross into South Korea.
Kim and his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, stepping back into the North Korean side of the concrete line momentarily (an unscripted act that prompted spontaneous applause at the site).
Or Moon and Kim alone on a blue bridge out of the reach of microphones and without the presence of aides, sitting at a table and talking for half an hour.
To be sure, most of these and similar moments were carefully choreographed (except for Kim’s invitation to Moon to step over to the North Korean side of the military demarcation line for a few seconds).
The language of the summit statements, while calibrated and cautiously hopeful, was familiar from previous use.
History also records that the two previous summits, in 2000 and 2007, between Kim’s father Kim Jong-il and his South Korean counterparts at the time, did not result in peace or the long-term easing of tensions.
Whether the Kim-Moon meeting of April 2018 will lead to a formal treaty ending the Korean conflict by the end of the year, as the two leaders pledged, remains to be seen.
Kim also made mention of his readiness to commit to denuclearization — but he is meeting with US President Donald Trump later this month or early next month, and it hardly seems plausible that he will make such a serious commitment even before the venue of the upcoming summit is decided.
We should remember what brought the two Koreas, and the two superpowers China and the United States, to this point: Kim spent all of 2017 rattling his nuclear saber, showing off impressive advances in missile technology, and engaging Trump and others in a bellicose exchange of words. (He had many people scrambling for the dictionaries when he called the American tweeter-in-chief a “dotard.”)
Even China, North Korea’s only ally and principal economic partner, voiced frustration over Pyongyang’s belligerence.
But in a space of several weeks, Kim achieved three diplomatic objectives in quick succession. He maneuvered Trump into a summit (North Korea has long sought such a meeting with the president of the United States, and US policy has always been to deem such a meeting as a reward waiting at the end of a lengthy, rigorous process, rather than a first step); he met with China’s core leader Xi Jinping; then he crossed into South Korea to meet Moon.
By themselves, these actions, however weighted with historic significance, are not and cannot be enough. They are insufficient — but they are necessary next steps if long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula is the goal.
Again, all the talk about denuclearization, however heady, seems premature; the reality is, Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear power is confirmed.
And because it is this new reality that enabled Kim to reach out to Trump, consolidate his relationship with Xi, and meet Moon as a young man confident enough to show deference to his older counterpart, it does not seem likely that North Korean denuclearization is an early item on the agenda.
Still, despite all that, the Kim-Moon summit was definitely a net positive. Kim’s candid remarks, broadcast or reported to the rest of the world, show that he is well aware of the now-vast difference in quality of life between the two Koreas. (He was educated in Swiss boarding schools, after all.)
For instance, as the BBC reported, Moon told Kim “he would like to climb Mount Paektu, a mountain in the North held sacred by the Korean people.”
Kim’s reply: “I feel embarrassed about the poor transit infrastructure.”
That he did not deny the reality, that indeed he took the initiative to mention something that was less than perfect in the country he rules as absolute leader, is an encouraging sign, that the summit and its follow-on meetings will not be based on self-justifying rhetoric or political theater, but on facts on the ground.
That, in itself, is already a breakthrough.
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