Let's talk color symbolism: South Korean version

Last April, spring in South Korea could be depicted by shades of blue — an embodiment of atmospherics of peace and aspirations for a One Korea, the azure of the Korean unification flag, the cerulean of the footbridge traversed by President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBiden calls for unity, jabs at Trump in campaign launch America's struggle with China and North Korea is for keeps A reality-based game for Trump watchers: 'Name that Fallacy' MORE during the Panmunjom inter-Korean summit. The color blue as represented in Seoul held aspirational connotations, evoking freedom, calmness, stability and the heavens.

Symbolism, however, is subjective, an experience beholden to the individual, context and occasion. As such, one color holds manifold interpretations and can even evoke contradicting sentiments depending on its contextual undertones.

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The airy, expansive blue gradually took on an icy, steely hue as talks with North Korea stopped far short of achieving the parties’ desired outcomes. Pyongyang scored neither a peace agreement nor a reprieve from the chokehold of sanctions pressure from the summitry. Washington opted to walk away from Hanoi without binding itself to an agreement of Kim’s beta version of denuclearization. And Seoul, expectant of a U.S.-North Korea deal to unfetter the diplomatic, economic and political mobility between the two Koreas, found itself in the hot seat, constricted by pressure from both Washington and Pyongyang after the Hanoi no-deal.

If blue had been Korea’s thematic color in 2018, yellow may be apposite to Seoul’s political undertones in the current year. Yellow, less for its commonly held associations than for its ironic bite and brimming undertones.

Remarkably, last week, President Moon and his advisors were pictured uniformly clad in daffodil-yellow jackets at the National Security Council’s crisis management center as a solidarity gesture and to respond to one of the country’s largest wildfires in Gangwon Province. Officials visiting the devastated regions and consoling victims of forest fires also donned these light-yellow jackets. At first blush, the brightness of this color seems an apt selection to lift up and encourage the residents affected by the forest fires — after all, yellow is typically associated with joy, peace, hope and sunshine. But soberly, the color yellow — when overused — can have a disturbing, agitating effect. An attention-grabbing color, the garishness of yellow hues could signify warning and caution.

This brooding note lingers as Presidents Trump and Moon are expected to hold a summit in Washington this Thursday — their first meeting since the breakdown of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in February. This summit also marks the first encounter between Trump and Moon since the 30-minute “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting last November.

Also on Thursday, North Korea is expected to hold its 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), where Kim Jong Un is expected to announce his domestic and foreign policy plans and appoint new officials. There has been speculation that Pyongyang may use the occasion to announce a constitutional revision to make Kim the country’s official head of state. In March, Kim’s name did not appear in the list of delegates elected to the SPA. Kim also recently visited his father’s birthplace of Samjiyon County — a practice traditionally observed prior to North Korea’s announcement of a major decision.

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As portrayed by the Blue House, the Trump-Moon meeting is geared toward bringing the two leaders together to discuss strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance and coordinating the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization. Enduring alliance interests and a peace regime via “complete denuclearization” remain at odds with one another, however. Arguably, one could posit that the alliance gave way to fissures as Seoul and Washington grew farther apart in their respective positions vis-à-vis North Korea’s denuclearization.

As time revealed more palpably and confirmed gut-suspicions, Seoul’s position on denuclearization seemed to sway toward bearing a semblance to Pyongyang’s long-etched, unmovable stance on “denuclearization” — the removal of U.S. strategic assets and nuclear umbrella from the peninsula and the region, and the decoupling of the Washington-Seoul alliance as intermediate progress markers to gradually reduce U.S. regional influence and pave the way toward unification under a North Korean-style system.

This, without question, is inconsistent with the ethos of the Washington-Seoul alliance and U.S. interests. For Washington, denuclearization necessitates irreversibility and verifiability of Pyongyang’s commitment — not piecemeal negotiations of dubious North Korean intentions. A unified, interlocked U.S.-South Korea stance on the North’s nuclear weapons program remains a critical first step in any forward, irreversible movement on Pyongyang’s denuclearization; it also figures as the basic litmus test to verify the strength and durability of the alliance.

Moon during his U.S. visit will likely remain vigilant for opportunities to persuade Washington to again consider Pyongyang’s position with a more favorable eye, to remain open to easing sanctions pressure on the regime in exchange for Kim’s good-faith gestures toward partial, unaccountable, reversible steps toward denuclearization. The door to a third Trump-Kim summit remains slightly ajar — at least nominally so. However, the Trump administration, since walking away from the Hanoi summit, has reasserted its position that sanctions will remain in place until its ultimate objective of complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea is achieved.

The Hanoi walkout was a last-minute aversive dodging from a deal that would have placed Washington’s negotiating mobility increasingly in the hands of a noncommittal Pyongyang interested less in denuclearization than in increasing its compressive forces to extract economic concessions and gradually drive away U.S. physical and symbolic presence in the region. Daffodil-yellow jackets warn, Thursday’s Trump-Moon meeting is unlikely to bear good tidings in the way of mending rifts in the alliance or a recalibration of Seoul’s position on Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

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. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.