This past week’s dramatic Pyongyang summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un triggers memories of mawkish Pyongyang pageants past. The last, in October 2007, featured South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and the second-generational North Korean despot, Kim Jong Il.
Wishing to present a special banquet for his host, Roh went all out. He brought with him an expert proprietress of Korean royal cuisine, a legion of chefs, and the finest ingredients harvested from each of the South’s eight provinces for an elaborate playacting of the sumptuous court banquets featured in the popular TV series, “Dae Jang Geum,” (“Jewel in the Palace”), of which Kim the Second purportedly was a big fan.
At the much-anticipated reality show banquet, Kim Jong Il was a no-show. No explanation was given. The tone of the talks had been set.
Once back home, Roh declared he had won peace and pledged aid. The scale of “economic cooperation,” estimated at over $13 billion in grants, low-interest loans, and investment seemed a costly peace premium; Roh already had been giving Kim, since 2003, approximately $900 million a year.
Later, in 2012, came the revelation that Roh’s pledge to Kim went beyond economic resources. Leaked transcripts of the Roh-Kim discussions, recorded and summarized by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, revealed Roh obsequiously made several concessions:
In their talks, Roh referred to the contested maritime border between the Koreas, the site of deadly skirmishes in 1999 and 2002, as “not clearly defined by international law” and reassured Kim he could “certainly counter it.”
Informing Kim that he had, in meetings with foreign heads of state, acted as Kim’s “spokesperson” regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, Roh boasted that he had defended the North’s position in the Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of North Korea and had “quarreled” with Americans.
Blaming the United States for drumming up war fever in the Korean peninsula, Roh told Kim that the U.S. designation in 2005 of Banco Delta Asia, where approximately $25 million of laundered North Korean funds had been deposited, was “unjust” and “a mistake.” Roh said he had quashed OPLAN 5029, a contingency plan for responding to the possible collapse of the Kim regime.
Roh’s supplicant approach, in fact, was not new. His immediate predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, laid the ground rules of engagement. Just days before President Kim’s own Pyongyang pilgrimage in June 2000 — the first inter-Korean summit — he secretly funneled $500 million into Northern Kim’s coffers, a sum approximately equal to North Korea’s total export earnings that year.
Back in the South, on June 15, 2000, President Kim declared that he brought back from Pyongyang peace. There would henceforth be “no war in the Korean peninsula” (though there had not been since 1953). He said Kim Jong Il confided that he actually wishes for U.S. troops to remain in the South, and that his frequent calls for their immediate and complete withdrawal were purely for domestic consumption.
“Peace,” won in 2000, re-won in 2007, and now in 2018, thanks to Moon, has morphed into “permanent peace,” as stated in the Sept. 19 Pyongyang Joint Statement. The phrase is a not-so-subtle summons for a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea.
Just how many bombs the North has built with the billions of dollars Seoul has pumped into Pyongyang’s piggy bank remains unclear. But what’s clear is that the latest pledge drive couched as peace summit will enable Kim Jong Un to improve and expand his nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to a far greater extent than with Seoul’s previous peace-shopping sprees.
While much of the world wrangles over the meaning of Kim’s stated intent to dismantle a tired missile engine test site and, for the right price, maybe the main nuclear reactor facility in Yongbyon, Moon quietly made a far more meaningful pledge — to give Kim tens of billions of dollars under the rubric of “developing the nation’s economy in a balanced manner,” namely:
Build rail and roads across the border on both flanks of the peninsula; resume the bulk cash transfers of the past in excess of $100 million a year by reactivating the Mt. Geumgang tourism and Kaesong industrial park projects; and agree to fund development of the North’s forestry and public health.
Frustrated by its inability to admit having been duped and walk away from President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE’s Singapore agreement with Kim, the United States may keep digging the hole and agree to a peace treaty with North Korea with full knowledge of what may ensue — dismantlement of the United Nations Command and U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Combined Forces Command; withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea; and the end of nuclear deterrence in the region.
The de facto peace since the Korean War’s end in 1953 has been made possible by the U.S.-ROK alliance and credible message of deterrence that the presence of U.S. soldiers in the South project. Peace has been maintained in spite of Pyongyang’s countless lethal attacks, threats and Seoul-sponsored sleight of hand summit shows. But today Kim Jong Un stands on the verge of nuclear breakout and closer than ever to achieving his grandfather’s dream of compelling the United States to leave the South.
An alternative future without the Republic of Korea, or with South Koreans living in complete submission to the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, fantastical as it may sound, always has been the one non-negotiable proposition for the North’s dynastic dictatorship. In the cold reality of international politics, as long as Kim acted as a responsible steward of his nukes and gulag nation, such a disagreeable future would in the end be an acceptable proposition to all — China, Russia, Japan, and even the United States.
The Moon-Kim summit, beyond the bonhomie, mirth, banquets, stadium visit and mountain hike, has made that unlikely future, the advent of a new kind of peace, more likely than ever.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.