One of the most enduring images of North Korea was captured not from earth, but from outer space. Four years ago, when the International Space Station passed over East Asia at night, it took a series of pictures of the region. From outer space, North Korea looked like a giant mass of darkness next to the blindingly bright lights of South Korea. The two countries, despite being estranged only for about seven decades, are so different from each other today. The South is a vibrant democracy, the North an absolute dictatorship; the South is among the richest countries in the world, the North among the poorest; citizens of the North rarely travel abroad, while a South Korean passport assures visa-free entry to more than 170 countries.
Yet, on April 27, all those differences appeared to have vanished, at least momentarily. In a gesture of friendship and reconciliation, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un drove to the South and met South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the peace village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. It was the third inter-Korean summit, the first two having taken place in 2000 and 2007.
The DMZ is a buffer zone between the two Koreas, almost 4km wide and 240km long, guarded on both sides by landmines, electric fences, tank traps and a large posse of soldiers. The term ‘demilitarised’ is a misnomer as the area has one of the heaviest military deployments in the world. The DMZ has witnessed hundreds of hostile incidents over the past 65 years. President Moon was a member of the South Korean special forces serving at the DMZ in August 1976 when North Korean soldiers axed to death two American soldiers who were cutting down a poplar tree that was blocking the view of UN observers. On the summit day, however, all that appeared to be memories from the bitter past. The mood was distinctively upbeat in South Korea. In Seoul, the capital city, giant TV screens were set up at multiple places for people to watch the live coverage of the summit. Outside the city hall, people watched Kim’s arrival with excitement. On the nearby lawns, flowers were arranged in the shape of the Korean peninsula. There was also a huge banner showing two hands shaking to form the shape of the two Koreas together. Many schools had given the day off to students so that they could watch events unfold on television.“I was surprised to see the positive attitude of Kim Jong-un,” said Kang Cheol-won, who works for the South Korean conglomerate GS Group. “And, I am excited to think of the upcoming changes after today. I believe the summit will be a big step towards the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas.” Several of his colleagues nodded in agreement.
Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, New York, said the optimism was justified. “The agenda of the summit included inter-Korean economic cooperation, greater communication on security issues and military confidence-building measures,” he said.
The historic moment came at 9:30am, when Kim arrived at Panmungak, the main building on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, where the armistice agreement to end the Korean war was signed in 1953. Dressed in his signature striped Mao-style jacket, Kim walked across the military demarcation line into South Korea—the first North Korean head of state to do so—where he was received by President Moon.
After he crossed the cracked block of concrete at the military demarcation line into South Korea, Moon asked him, “So, when do I get to visit North Korea?” Kim took his hands and said, “Right now,” and led him into North Korea for a brief while. Kim and Moon then inspected a guard of honour presented by South Korean soldiers dressed in traditional uniform.
“We will make a new beginning,” said Kim, in his opening remarks. “It has taken 11 years for this historic moment to happen. Walking here, I wondered why it has taken so long. Through today’s meeting, I hope we won’t go back to square one again and non-implementation of what we agree won’t happen again.” The talks between the two leaders were held at the Peace House building in Panmunjeom, where they sat across a table that was designed like two bridges merged into one. They sat 2,018mm apart, to mark the 2018 summit. Earlier, a North Korean security team swept the venue for explosives and listening devices, and sprayed disinfectant in the air, on the chairs and on the guest book, in which Kim scribbled a message. The North Korean delegation that sat down for the summit also included Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s sister and first vice department director of the committee. President Moon was accompanied by his secretary Im Jong-suk and intelligence chief Suh Hoon. The word Panmunjeom is not Korean. The village was originally called Neolmun-ri, which means wooden-door village. In 1951, during the Korean war, US soldiers put up a sign at a tavern in the village to make it easier for Chinese troops to locate a nearby makeshift venue for peace talks. In Chinese, the sign was pronounced Panmunjeom.
Talks between the two delegations went on for almost 100 minutes in the morning, followed by one-to-one discussions between the two leaders in the afternoon. A joint statement—the first in history by the two Koreas—was issued in the evening. The Panmunjeom Declaration announced an end to all hostilities and agreed to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Both Koreas said they would work with the US and China to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty to end the Korean war. They will also work to transform the demilitarised zone into a peace zone. Moon will visit Pyongyang later in the year. Both countries agreed to seek reunification, and set up a jointly operated communications office in Kaesong, in North Korea. They will also take steps to promote reunification of families that got separated because of the division of Korea. And, in the Jakarta Asian Games later this year, the two countries will field a joint team.
The South Koreans had prepared meticulously for the summit. Several rounds of preparatory meetings had been held to fine-tune details of the schedule, media coverage and other protocols. Even the menu for the banquet held after the summit was finalised after extensive consultations with Pyongyang. One of the main dishes was naengmyeon noodles, a North Korean speciality, and a group of chefs from the Okryu-Gwan restaurant in Pyongyang set up a noodle-making machine near the venue to serve it fresh. Earlier in the day, Kim said he hoped Moon would like the noodles. After Kim’s remarks, cold noodles began trending online in South Korea. Long lines could be seen outside popular naengmyeon eateries in Seoul.
Although most South Koreans are largely supportive of the summit, not everyone is convinced about its long-term success. Park Chang-hwan, a 24-year-old student from Busan, said the North Koreans had fooled the world many times in the past. “Inter-Korean summits have happened twice in the past. All it helped create was atom bombs and delivery capability for the North and an escape route from sanctions. Will Kim give up his nuclear weapons?”It is precisely this question that will determine the success of the summit. Yet, it is quite difficult to know what is in the mind of a man as secretive as Kim, who even brought a portable toilet to the summit so that South Koreans would not ferret out information about his health status from his excretions. While the joint statement mentioned denuclearisation, it did not set any parameters or a schedule. Shin Beom-chul, senior fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, Seoul, said Kim only agreed on a broad principle of denuclearisation. “He stopped short of specifying any detailed implementation steps,” said Shin. And, Kim was also careful not to mention it in his speech. Similarly, the decision to conclude a formal peace treaty to end the Korean war is not going to be easy. It requires cooperation from the UN, the US and China, and also an amendment of the South Korean constitution. Most of the other major announcements in the joint declaration, such as deepening inter-Korean cooperation and family reunification have been tried in the past, but with limited success.
The unexpected flurry of peace talks, in fact, took the whole world by surprise, but not President Moon. “He is from the liberal-progressive camp, and engagement and peace-building has been a long-term policy objective for them,” said Kevin Gray, Korean expert at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. When the last inter-Korean summit was held in 2007, Moon, serving as the chief of staff of then president Roh Moo-hyun, was one of its principal architects. He has yet another emotional connect to the summit. Moon was very close to former president Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel peace prize for hosting the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Moments before his death on August 18, 2009, he held Moon close and asked him to continue his efforts for peace with North Korea.
For Moon, the peace process has been his life’s mission since then. Back in 2003, he had given up public life and went on a long trip to the Himalayas. He returned to politics after a while, with a vow to work for abiding peace on the Korean peninsula.
Moon has been working on it from the moment he took charge as president in May 2017. He had to face a barrage of missile and nuclear tests and threats from the North after he took over, but he kept his cool. He even had to perform the unenviable task of keeping US President Donald Trump in good humour, which he did by never missing a chance to praise the US president publicly, despite the problems South Korea was having on trade tariffs with the United States. Moon spotted an opportunity for peace in Kim’s unusually magnanimous New Year address and used the Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea to make his next move. Upon his invitation, Kim sent a 500-member team, which marched together with the team from the South during the inaugural ceremony of the games. Kim also sent his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to South Korea.
As ice broke between the two leaders, Moon sent a team led by his national security adviser to Pyongyang, and Kim told them about his willingness to meet Moon as well as Trump. As Trump okayed the unusual request from the North Korean ruler, it was diplomatic high season once again on the Korean peninsula. While South Korea’s motives for the summit are easy to understand, it is not so in the case of Kim. One of the reasons behind his new-found confidence is North Korea’s nuclear capability. “In his 2017 New Year speech, Kim announced that by the end of the year, North Korea would complete its nuclear programme. This target was reached, and they are now reasonably confident in their nuclear deterrent and are in a stronger position to gain concessions from the US,” said Gray. “The North Koreans have been seeking some kind of normalisation of relations with the US. They do not want to be a permanent international pariah state.”
Moreover, sanctions unleashed by Trump have also begun to bite as China, the largest trading partner of North Korea, has finally tightened screws. The sanctions targeted North Korea’s energy trade, especially its coal export and the import of petroleum products. Income from North Korean migrant workers abroad, who are mandated to send back a sizeable portion of their earnings to Pyongyang, was also affected.
Choi Jang-ho, an expert at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Sejong, near Seoul, said the volume of exports and imports had fallen considerably this year, pointing towards a sharp economic downturn and a depletion of foreign reserves. A balance of payment crisis would be disastrous for Kim, who is hoping that his market-oriented reforms, including the plans to selectively liberalise the economy, allowing the development of a de facto private sector and setting up special economic zones with the help of foreign investors, would revive North Korea’s fortunes.
Under Kim, there has been a partial revival of the economy, especially in Pyongyang. There is a new airport terminal, there are more cars, most people are carrying mobile phones and several international brands of luxury goods are available in department stores. There are even ice rinks, theme parks and bowling alleys. If the sanctions are to continue, however, Kim realises that the recent gains are likely to be wiped out. The summit was a way out of this nightmare.
Kim is also more confident now as he has now absolute control over the North Korean ruling apparatus. His potential challengers and adversaries like his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, uncle Jang Song-thaek, military chief Ri Yong-il and defence minister Hyon Yong-chol were all killed. And, he has almost exclusively targeted the elites, not the common man, improving his image among his people. Kim’s recent visit to China—his first overseas trip after taking power—was a display of this new-found confidence. Kim could be the leader who could push through reforms and open North Korea like Deng Xiaoping did with China, said Lee Gee-dong of the Institute for National Security Strategy, Seoul. And, in Xi Jinping, he has a role model who has shown that authoritarianism can coexist with economic liberalisation. “But he needs the support of South Korea and the rest of the world,” said Lee.The summit has been a challenge for Moon as well. He needs to win the support of the youth and the conservatives, who are largely unsure about the peace process. All the past peace initiatives have come from liberal presidents and the conservatives who succeeded them have almost always taken steps that led to the collapse of the peace process. Moon has got four years to consolidate the gains.
The young generation looks at the summit with some trepidation. Unemployment rate among the 19-29 age group is very high and they are afraid that reconciliation with the North would result in the influx of cheap labour from their impoverished neighbour, further undermining their opportunities. The young men also have to undergo two years of compulsory military service where they are trained to treat North Korea as their principal enemy.
The success of the Korean peace process cannot be guaranteed by just the two Koreas. The US, for instance, is an equally important player. And it is not something that most Koreans are happy about. Yoo Ah-rim, a Seoul resident, said South Korea should learn to take charge of its relations with the North, instead of relying on the US. She said the US and regional powers like China, Japan and Russia have their own interests. “I think these countries do not want unification,” she said. “They profit by maintaining the present situation.”
The Korean crisis has been primarily the result of external involvement, dating back to the colonial occupation of Korea by Imperial China and Japan, and later to the Cold War politics of the US and the USSR. Right now, with the US being the principal backer of South Korea and the primary antagonist of the North, an American commitment to the peace process is required for its success.
From an American perspective, two things are crucial, said Joshy M. Paul, who teaches international relations at Christ University, Bengaluru. “The US wants to make sure that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is dismantled, or at least a verifiable guarantee that it won’t be used against the US. Second, it wants to ensure that the American strategic presence in the region is not affected by inter-Korean peace.”
The Panmunjeom Declaration has opened a way to make these a part of the agenda of the Trump-Kim summit, which could take place in late May or June. For China, too, this is a critical area of interest. Unlike the US, China shares a long border with North Korea. Zhao Tong, strategic affairs expert at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Beijing, said China preferred four-party talks with the two Koreas and the US. President Xi already dispatched his special envoy on foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi, to Seoul. And, by extending an exalted welcome to Kim, Beijing signalled that it was determined to play a decisive role in any diplomatic process for dealing with the Korean peninsula.
As the two Koreas returned to normalcy after a day of hectic diplomacy, there was one abiding image that captured the spirit of the summit. After the lunch break on the summit day, the two leaders—65-year-old Moon and 34-year-old Kim—took a stroll on the grounds of the peace village, and sat down for a private chat. Most of the time, it was Moon who was chatting animatedly. Kim was smiling and nodding, seemingly in agreement with Moon. It looked like a father to son talk. And, the moment seemed to reflect what Kim wrote in the visitor’s book early in the day. “A new history starts now. An age of peace, from the starting point of history.”