The meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un on Friday could help bring about permanent peace on the peninsula, which remains technically at war even though the Korean War ended 65 years ago.
More crucially, it could pave the way for the regressive, reclusive and secretive North to come out of total international isolation and severe economic sanctions, becoming a “normal” nation that is accepted and respected by the world.
The Moon-Kim encounter is the third of its kind. In 2000 and 2007, Kim Dae-jung, who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North, and Roh Moo-hyun, whose chief of staff was Moon, the South’s current president, traveled to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor.
Though they somehow improved inter-Korean ties in those years, as manifested, the two summits failed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and to establish peace on the peninsula. This, coupled with the fact that the North has broken its promises many times in the past, has made many people skeptical about today’s summit.
But, judging by some remarkable signals and gestures from the North’s third-generation autocrat over the past four months, it’s hopeful that this time may be different.
Turning from his aggression and provocation, which he sought to maximize in 2017 with numerous missile launches and a hydrogen bomb test, Kim has embarked on diplomatic outreach and symbolic accommodations, if not concessions, since the beginning of 2018 that were unthinkable five or six months ago.
For instance, he is no longer opposed to the American-South Korean exercises and has dropped his long-held demand for the removal of US forces from the South as a condition for denuclearization. For him, the US’s joint military exercises with the South and the presence of its 28,000 troops there were the reasons why his country needed nuclear weapons.
His meeting with Moon in the southern part of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the rival Koreas is, without doubt, the culmination of his recent whirlwind diplomacy and overture.
The mere fact that he crossed the military demarcation line (MDL) to the South for the symbolism-laden, highly anticipated and carefully choreographed summit – rather than the South Korean president traveling north – is also indicative of his outreach. With such a gesture, Kim has become the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the end of the 1950-53 war.
Also noteworthy is that, a week before the summit, the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held a plenum and, on that occasion, Kim announced “a new strategic line” to focus the country’s resources on rebuilding its economy.
In 2013, two years after inheriting power from his father, the young ruler adopted the so-called “byungjin” policy, which pursued nuclear weapons and economic development simultaneously. While introducing some economic reforms, over the few past years, he has strongly focused on the former, helping the North accelerate its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.
Kim announced the shift because he said his communist country had now accomplished its top goal, becoming a nuclear power, and, consequently, no longer needed to test intercontinental missiles and nuclear bombs. That’s why Pyongyang publicly announced the suspension of all missile and nuclear tests and the shutting down of a nuclear site the following day.
Whether the North’s achievement of its weapons development goals or severe international sanctions is the deciding factor behind the Kim regime’s recent shift in its external and internal policies is open to debate.
What is indisputable is that, without the easing of the current crippling international sanctions, championed by the US and backed by China, Pyongyang’s sole ally and prominent trading partner, it’s difficult for him to feed his ruling elite, who, like him, apparently enjoy luxury lifestyles, and his destitute people – let alone rebuild the impoverished country’s economy.
With the strict and unprecedented UN sanctions starting to bite and, indeed, bite hard, Kim may now have realized that he cannot ensure his dynastic regime’s long-term survival with nukes – but rather with economic development. As a result, he needs to improve external relations – not least with US President Donald Trump, who insists that “global maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea denuclearizes.”
That’s why, while it remains very difficult and, indeed, highly improbable for his regime to relinquish its hard-won nuclear weapons or what it called the “treasured sword of justice,” it has not been completely ruled out that at this summit and his planned meeting with Trump in June, Kim will agree to some concrete measures toward denuclearization.
The possibility for such a positive outcome will be greater if, in these two milestone summits, he is offered – and feels assured of – economic incentives and security guarantees for his country and notably his dynastic family’s rule.
Like his late father, he has strongly focused on the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads because he perceives that it is the only way for him and his regime to survive.
Indeed, all the despot has done – and will do – is protect his dynasty. The survival of his regime is, without doubt, at front and center of his historic face-to-face talks with Moon and Trump.
Moon – who, like his two liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, has strongly advocated engagement with the North since coming to power last May – will certainly give Kim economic and security guarantees should he abandon his nuclear weapons. Moreover, as the summit comes early in his term, the South Korean president has the time and resources to reinforce any agreement that emerges from it.
Some argue that, as he is acutely aware of the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, both of whom were overthrown after they gave up their weapons of mass destruction, the North Korean ruler will not give up his.
But, geopolitically, the northeast Asian country is not Libya or Iraq. A military intervention by the US and its allies against Pyongyang would be an extremely dangerous as it would trigger a major military conflict with China, North Korea’s communist neighbor and the world’s second-biggest military power.
In fact, should the DPRK agree to take tangible steps to denuclearize, it is very likely that not only the US but many other countries would strongly support it economically, politically and diplomatically.
Thus, its denuclearization would not only lead to permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula but also enable the rogue state to come out of isolation, exclusion and destitution that it has endured for decades.
On this reading, while it remains very unlikely that both sides will reach a breakthrough on North Korea’s denuclearization at today’s high-stakes meeting at the “truce village” of Panmunjom, it is not a completely distant prospect. Should this happen, Panmunjom, which has served as ground zero for much of the peninsula’s six decades of turmoil, hostility and division, will certainly become the landmark of peace, friendship and reconciliation between the two Koreas.