Inter-Korean talks: Pomp and circumstance veil Moon and Kim’s expectations

Inter-Korean talks: Pomp and circumstance veil Moon and Kim’s expectations
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Tomorrow, two worlds will collide as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' Pompeo expresses concern over North Korea missile tests State Dept. extends travel ban to North Korea MORE meet for the first time at a historic inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom. The Moon-Kim tete-a-tete also holds considerable weight for the Trump administration, since it will set the tone for the first-ever summit between the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea slated to take place in May or June.

As can be expected during a once-in-a-lifetime event, much in South Korea has been about pomp and circumstance as it fine-tunes the last-minute arrangements — what the Blue House calls “security, protocol and media” — for the Moon-Kim meeting. Television stations in Seoul have dedicated considerable air time to the many angles of summit prep, including the delegation rosters, speculation on the attendance of Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju, whether Kim would meet President Moon on foot or by car, and how the two leaders would greet each other upon first contact.

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One program even meticulously outlined ideal photo op locations throughout Panmunjom, and noted what message these scenes could convey to the international community about North-South relations.

 

Riding the tides of the “pre-summit high,” so to speak, the casual observer of South Korean media coverage of the summit preparations easily could fall susceptible to naive optimism that this time, things will be different with North Korea. After all, hasn’t Kim himself given his word to commit to denuclearization, and hasn’t the North refrained from taking any provocative measures against Seoul or Washington long enough — by the DPRK’s standards — to lend credence to a rehabilitated Pyongyang?

Even Kim’s own media image softened quickly, and suspiciously so, in recent months. Now that the Moon administration has taken proactive measures to prioritize North-South relations, laying the groundwork for the U.S.-DPRK talks, the situation appears to be a “win-win,” as some analysts have described.

Let’s remind ourselves that we’re not dealing with an ally with a proven track record of keeping its word, let alone a country that operates under the same norms and expectations as the rest of the international community. Instead, Washington is dealing with a Stalinist authoritarian regime that has been standing for three generations, whose ultimate goal is to drive the U.S. military out of South Korea and achieve reunification under its own terms.

We would thus be gravely missing the mark, even setting ourselves up to be played into Kim’s hands, to base our assessment purely on Seoul’s current atmospherics surrounding the summit preparations. Crucially for Washington, Seoul’s pomp and ceremony distract the casual observer from piecing together a more complete, comprehensive picture of the situation on the Peninsula in the lead-up to Friday’s meeting.

Consider, for example, Kim Jong Un’s recent statement that the North’s nuclear development proceeded in due order and “verified the completion of nuclear weapons.” Since the DPRK has achieved the historic task of building a nuclear force, it no longer needs any nuclear or missile tests. In no part of Kim’s statement does he indicate the North’s commitment to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization; instead, he says the country will focus its efforts on building the economy now that it has finished its mission.

In addition, the Blue House has designated a peace treaty with North Korea as a top-priority item since the onset of Moon’s presidency, and proposed the two sides explore ways to formally end the truce and work towards establishing a permanent peace structure.

Conservative South Koreans have cautioned against a hasty move toward this peace apparatus, warning that a peace treaty between Seoul and Pyongyang — while a desired goal ultimately for the two Koreas — if premature could precipitate the removal of U.S. troops stationed in the South and expose Seoul to the North’s military and nuclear aggressions without adequate security backing. Thus far, the Blue House has given no indication of backing down on this goal.

Top this off with the Moon administration’s advocacy for constitutional reform, which could align the South Korean constitution with the North’s objectives and potentially move the capital away from Seoul — perhaps even open the possibility of designating Pyongyang as the capital under a reunified Korea. Not to mention, South Korea’s Defense Ministry recently turned off its propaganda loudspeakers along the joint border in an effort to “create a peaceful mood” for the upcoming Moon-Kim summit.

Under settled conditions, wherein the North has completely renounced its nuclear program and the Koreas are on a constructive, concrete path toward permanent, lasting peace, these initiatives may not seem so jarring and premature. But these measures come long before the North has even taken one concrete, verifiable step toward fulfilling its verbal commitment to denuclearization and peaceful relations with the South. A tad hasty, no?

The clock is certainly ticking on North Korea, but let’s make sure to leave no stone unturned — in both Pyongyang and Seoul — before any concessions or binding agreements are made with the DPRK. At the very least, there should be no daylight between Washington and Seoul’s expectations from the summit, lest we find ourselves with a (still) nuclear North Korea and a defenseless, rudderless South Korea.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program.