In a cheerful atmosphere resembling a family reunion, Kim Jong Un crossed the line in the Demilitarized Zone to become the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea. After 68 years, the Korean War will finally end.
The raised concrete slab over which Kim stepped over to enter South Korea has long been a symbol of the divide between the two countries. Dressed in his traditional black suit, North leader seemed relaxed as he shook hands with his counterpart from Seoul Moon Jae-in and invited him to jump over for a visit to the North. Moon Jae-in’s parents were refugees from North Korea, who fled the communists during the war on board of an American supply ship. Both of them returned to the Southern side and sat down for the negotiations, declaring the end of the war and announcing joint work towards “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Moon Jae-in has made no secret during his political career that unification of two Koreas has been his life-long dream and ambition. In the past, he brokered several deals between Pyongyang and Seoul, but this today is his highest achievement yet. He still has a lot of work ahead, as he prepares to mediate between Un and American President Trump in order to achieve a deal everyone will be satisfied with. The White House has issued a statement saying “that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.” President Trump said that he is looking forward to meeting Kim Jong Um in the near future, a sharp detour from just a few months ago when he was calling him a Rocket Man and threaten to annihilate his country.
As is customary with Korean meetings, the summit was orchestrated to the last detail and choke full of symbolic. Although not much in essence was agreed – Moon Jae-in will visit Pyongyang in fall, high-level military delegations will meet as soon as possible to discuss further de-escalation, and family reunions will resume – the atmosphere during the negotiations was very relaxed. Un joked about the North Korean type of noodles, which are very popular in the South and that he will stop waking up Moon Jae-in with missile alerts. The delegation from Pyongyang consisted of 9 members, one of which was Un’s sister.
Despite his wishes, Moon Jae-in isn’t in a position to offer much to his Northern counterpart. The talks of denuclearization of the peninsula are a matter that will be handled by the direct negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, while any significant economic relief South may offer is blocked by the latest round of the UN sanctions, placed in response to the nuclear test North Korea performed last year.
Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said that “Serious discussion about denuclearization is simply impossible because this is not so much an issue of South Korea, but rather an issue of the United States.” He also remarked that “South Korea should push the United States towards accepting a compromise,” something Moon Jae-in is probably eager to do.
Although North Korea agreed to stop further tests and even dismantle its testing facility, which reportedly collapsed, causing huge damage and unconfirmed deaths of several of the country’s leading nuclear scientists, denuclearization may be a tall order for America to achieve. Pyongyang has sacrificed too much in order to obtain nuclear weapons and, with its largely obsolete military, it is the only real deterrent they have in the face of a possible invasion. While ordinary people may welcome the unification, North Korea’s elites, which are the regime’s backbone, aren’t thrilled with the prospect of their children losing all of their privileges.
This puts South Korea’s leadership in a tough position, making it increasingly hard for them to persuade Trump and his hawkish advisors, namely Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, to agree to the deal that doesn’t feature full disarmament. Both Pompeo and Bolton have insisted that the military option is still on the table, regardless of the possible casualties that North Korea can inflict to South Korea and Japan’s civilian population. This will be the hardest part of the deal for Moon Jae-in since Trump is becoming increasingly unpredictable and keeping him at the table and willing to negotiate may prove quite impossible.