With live-streamed coverage of nearly 12 hours of fanfare between South Korea President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, viewers around the world exhaled a collective sigh of relief and anticipation. The two leaders made history Friday with their summit meeting, placing a temporary stay on further tensions on the Korean Peninsula that had been induced by the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile arsenal.
In this third inter-Korean summit — two previous meetings were held in 2000 and 2008 — Kim became the first North Korean head of state to set foot on South Korean soil. He also is the first North Korean leader to stand before the press to give a joint inter-Korean announcement, a feat that his paternal counterpart, Moon, generously lauded.
Given Kim’s relaxed demeanor, accented at times by self-effacing humor during his conversations with Moon, and the harmonious conclusion of their meeting, the aspiration that perhaps this time there will indeed be “no more war on the Korean Peninsula” doesn’t seem far-fetched at first glance. The bellicose, ruthless Kim we have known was nowhere to be found, replaced by a man who seemed approachable and not too far removed from reality.
Can the international community truly relax and look forward to peaceful coexistence with a born-again North Korea? Not quite.
Foremost, Kim’s speech in the joint announcement made no mention of denuclearization. Moon said the two sides affirmed that they share the common goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization, but Kim neither affirmed nor denied this statement. In fact, the North Korean leader’s speech did not address any of the issues that long have brewed trouble with Seoul, Washington and regional neighbors.
Kim’s statement to the media brushed only broad strokes and generalities about what’s next for Seoul and Pyongyang, saying that the two sides “agreed to practical steps” toward cooperation. If anything, his announcement seemed akin to a motivational speech, warning the international audience that the road is long and can be punctuated by headwinds, setbacks and hardships — but that there is no victory without pain, no glory without hardship.
In short, the North Korean regime did not really show its cards, at least in public.
Seoul, for its part, won a few small gains. That the Blue House was able to score a historic meeting with the North Korean leader amidst ever-high tensions, and at least hold in abeyance further conflict, is no small achievement. If the summit proves to be a success — if true cooperation results and North Korea bids farewell to its nuclear and missile program — then Moon will have achieved what every South Korean president has attempted but failed to accomplish.
But based on what was shared in the public sphere, it appears the North gained much more from the summit than the South. Patently, Kim, his wife Ri Sol-ju, and his sister Kim Yo-jong, received the best PR image makeover on a global scale. The hours-long international press coverage provided Kim and his advisers with a mint opportunity to change the world’s perceptions about North Korea, as Kim strolled leisurely with the leader of one of the most economically powerful countries in the world. Without a doubt, the summit boosted Kim Jong Un’s prestige as a leader of a state — no matter how decrepit and backward — by a couple of factors.
The two Koreas agreed to establish more frequent communications through direct talks and exchanges, as well as multilateral meetings with the United States and China to discuss the establishment of a solid peace. For the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the opportunity for diplomacy is an informal membership pass to the international community and its economic, political and technological perks. But these diplomatic channels are fruitful to all only if North Korea demonstrates serious commitment to follow through on its pledge to completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program.
In reality, it appears that South Korea may have dangled this fruit in front of North Korea a tad prematurely — long before Kim himself expressly laid out steps he would take to address the nuclear issue, his country’s dismal human rights record, and other illicit activities.
The summit heralded the beginning of many possible outcomes: a progressive path toward improved inter-Korean relations; a solid building block for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit; and the road to North Korea’s complete denuclearization and rehabilitated behavior. But other potential outcomes are a replay of what has come before: merely face-saving gestures of engagement and a huge financial bonus package for Pyongyang with deleterious political, security and economic consequences for South Korea, Washington, Tokyo, and to an extent, Beijing.
Many around the world are hopeful that the pendulum will finally swing toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. But this is naïveté. The North Korean leader we saw yesterday is no different from the leadership we saw in 2000, 2008 — or even just late last year. And the way things are developing between Moon and Kim, it appears Kim’s hand is getting stronger while Moon and his administration continue to fall prey to Pyongyang’s false promises.
The key to real change could rest with President Trump. Lest the United States also becomes captivated by the North Korea trance that has so enchanted the Moon administration, Washington must stay its course to deal firmly with Pyongyang and make no concessions unless the DPRK regime takes measured, progressive and concrete steps toward fulfilling its end of the deal.
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.