Not quite Seoul mates – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea President Moon Jae-in in a friendly embrace at their second summit in North Korea. Photo: The Blue House
Amid an uproar over an alleged secret nuclear plant deal, South Korea's right wing fears that President Moon Jae-in is too keen to embrace North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: The Blue House

In another twist in the fast-changing developments on the Korean Peninsula, Moon Jae-in crossed into the North at the border village of Panmunjom to meet his counterpart Kim Jong-un last week.

The unannounced encounter on May 26 at the truce village, where the two had met for the first time a month ago, came just two days after US President Donald Trump abruptly canceled a highly anticipated summit with Kim, which had been due to take place in Singapore on June 12.

The main purpose of the surprise confab was to revive the high-stakes Trump-Kim summit. Since then, an extraordinary flurry of diplomacy has been conducted to put the meeting back on track. Barring another sudden turn, which is not completely ruled out given the impulsiveness, abruptness and injudiciousness of both Trump and Kim, the unprecedented encounter will more than likely happen in the city-state on June 12, as originally planned.

While any solution to end the North’s nuclear-weapons program and the Korean War requires the United States’ involvement and agreement, the divided Koreas, which remain technically at war, should take the lead.

Indeed, as evidenced by many dramatic and optimistic developments on the peninsula since the beginning of this year, they can play the central role to terminate their decades-long hostility and determine their own destiny.

Without doubt, Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” is key to the North’s diplomatic overtures. That said, it is Kim and Moon who have taken specific, symbolic and drastic measures, such as Olympic unity, to foster rapprochement.

Without doubt, Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ is key to North Korea’s diplomatic overtures. That said, it is Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in who have taken specific, symbolic and drastic measures, such as Olympic unity, to foster rapprochement

At their summit on April 27 – the first such encounter between South and North Korea since 2007 – they signed a joint declaration in which they pledged to work toward a nuclear-free peninsula and a formal end to the three-year war that terminated in 1953 with an armistice agreement instead of a peace treaty.

But though it may have been the culmination of the one-day summit, signing the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula” was only one of many history-making and headline-grabbing moments of that extraordinary day.

A fascinating scene that captured global attention and imagination was of the two leaders walking on a footbridge and then sitting on benches without anyone around. During those moments, Moon and Kim talked privately and intimately – probably about the topics of the day, such as denuclearization of the peninsula.

Such candid, intimate and constructive conversations are difficult, if not impossible, if they meet leaders from other countries, such as Trump or Chinese President Xi Jinping. The simple reason for this is that they speak the (almost) same language, Korean – their mother tongue.

On that historic day, Kim told his Southern neighbors, “We [the Koreans], who live so close by, are not enemies that must fight against each other, but are more families that share the same bloodline, who must unite.”

While one may question the young ruler’s sincerity, it is undeniable that what he said is true. Though South and North Korea are now two completely different and independent countries, which are, after nearly seven decades of division and confrontation, worlds apart in many key aspects, it is indisputable that the North and South Koreans are the same people, who live on the same peninsula, speak the same language and bear the same bloodline.

Moon, the South’s 65-year-old president, was the child of refugees who fled the North during the 1950-53 war.

Such similarities are the reasons the two leaders were completely at ease – handshaking, hugging, smiling, joking and laughing – with each other even though it was the first time they had met and their countries remain technically enemies to each other.

In a statement about the second summit with his Northern counterpart, Moon described the encounter as “a routine meeting between friends.” The images and footage about their impromptu confab, which showed the two leaders warmly embracing each other, confirmed the South Korean leader’s emotion and depiction.

Moon, a human-rights lawyer, also said he had “long emphasized how important it is for the leaders of the two Koreas to meet regularly and communicate directly with each other as a means of overcoming inter-Korean confrontation and discord.”

Such a stance is definitely wise and crucial. Any peaceful solution to the seven-decade confrontation will first and foremost benefit the Koreans, on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In the same vein, if any armed conflict breaks out on the peninsula, it is the Koreans – not the Americans or the Chinese – who will suffer most.

The liberal president likewise recalled the nervousness that South Koreans felt last year, when the peninsula was on the brink of a military, even nuclear, conflict due to Trump’s and Kim’s brinkmanship. He pointed out, “Anxiety and fear about our security not only affected the economy and diplomacy, but also the daily lives of the people.”

That’s why it’s unsurprising that since entering the Blue House, the South’s presidential palace, in May last year, Moon has strongly favored engagement with Pyongyang. He has tried to prevent war between the US and the North and done his utmost to keep peace talks on track.

After Trump’s hasty cancellation of his meeting with Kim on May 25, at midnight that day Moon convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council’s standing committee. A statement released by the Blue House in the early hours of the following day said it was “very regretful and disconcerting” that the summit “will not happen as planned.” It also clearly stated: “Denuclearization and the lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be abandoned or delayed as they are the historical assignment.”

Moon is widely seen as a humble man and often presents himself as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington. But judging by many of his actions, it is clear that, for him, the Koreas should be at the helm of any effort to end the long-lasting hostility and establish a permanent peace on the peninsula.

In an editorial on May 2, the Global Times, a Chinese state outlet, hailed Beijing’s secret but influential dealings with North Korea and criticized the South for hyping up its interaction with the latter.

The nationalistic tabloid published by People’s Daily, China’s top newspaper, said the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un in March “was kept confidential until it was concluded. But Seoul, for its own political purposes, created much hype about the inter-Korean summit.”

The commentary also claimed: “Without China’s participation, it would be impossible to reach an agreement on denuclearization and permanent peace on the peninsula.”

Until the secret Xi-Kim encounter in Beijing, the first summit between the two communist neighbors since 2011, China was – or was seen as – sidelined from the crucial talks about denuclearization and peace on the peninsula, whose outcomes could also fundamentally reshape East Asia’s geopolitics.

Since then, faced with such marginalization, China, which had previously claimed it had nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear issue, has sought to present itself as a constructive and central player in those discussions.

Whether China can or should play a benign and crucial role is open to debate. In any case, the accusation that South Korea hyped up its flourishing relationship with its northern neighbor is derisory and irresponsible

Whether China can or should play such a benign and crucial role is open to debate. In any case, the accusation that South Korea hyped up its flourishing relationship with its northern neighbor is derisory and irresponsible.

Seoul has very good reasons to foster interaction with Pyongyang and be pleased with any improvement in bilateral ties, because this not only protects the South from a potentially catastrophic conflict but also advances security and prosperity on the whole peninsula.

Any responsible neighboring country should also encourage inter-Korean interaction and collaboration, because a military conflict – let alone a nuclear war – would cause far-reaching damage to the wider region.

As for North Korea, it is somehow understandable that the reclusive state turns to China – its sole ally and biggest trading partner – for support when reaching out to the South and the US, its hitherto arch-enemies.

Yet it is perhaps wise to avoid over-dependence on its communist neighbor. While it may be true that “China is a political mainstay,” Beijing gives such support not only because both the communist-run nations are “socialist countries” but also because it has its own political and geo-strategic purposes in doing so.

The view that North Korea is China’s buffer state is widely maintained.

If Kim Jong-un truly believes that the Koreans on both sides of the DMZ are the “same people, same blood, so we cannot be separated and should live together in unification,” he should trust his Southern compatriots rather than the giant neighbor that, as a scholar put it, “wants North Korea to be weak, but not so weak that it would collapse, and incorrigible enough to keep the US occupied, but not so dangerous that it actually starts a war.”

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.