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

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un will welcome South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang, North Korea, in September, it was announced Monday.

But the choice of venue – the third time North Korea’s capital has been the site of an inter-Korean summit, unlike Seoul, which has never hosted a North Korean leader – has raised some eyebrows.

On Monday, the two Koreas held high-level talks at the truce village of Panmunjom, where they agreed to hold a summit between their leaders “within September,” though a specific date was not mentioned.

The two sides have much to discuss.

Firstly, the North has accused the South of failing to keep promises from the inter-Korean summit in April, urging Seoul to take a path independent of the wishes and demands of its ally, the United States. Still, the two Koreas have agreed to establish a joint team for the Asian Games in Jakarta this month, are discussing joint railway and forestry projects and plan to establish a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ.

And with Seoul attempting to act as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, there could be even more on the menu.

According to US media, North Korea wants a declaration marking the end of the Korean War, while the United States wants North Korea to submit a list of its nuclear facilities as a first step in the denuclearization process.

Recent “confidence building” measures undertaken by both sides – the US halting military exercises on the peninsula; North Korea dismantling parts of its nuclear facilities and returning boxes of US war remains – cannot hide the fact that no mutually agreed-upon roadmap for denuclearization exists.

Regardless of the content, the location of the summit has captured some attention.

Pyongyang? Sure. Seoul? No thanks

The first inter-Korean summit, in 2000, was held in Pyongyang. So was the second, in 2007. The third, this April, took place on the South Korean side of the border truce village, Panmunjom, inside the Demilitarized Zone. A second, hastily arranged summit in May, took place on the North Korean side of Panmunjom.

While the venue for the autumn summit had been agreed upon – on South Korean soil during the April Panmunjom summit – Monday’s announcement means that four of five inter-Korean summits will have taken place in the North, and three will have taken place in the North’s capital.

In a region where “face” matters, this is significant.

In South Korea, the issue of primacy in inter-Korean affairs can manifest itself in quirky ways. For example, locals follow a custom, when writing in English, of always placing South Korea before North Korea – even though the natural format, following alphabetical order, would be to write North-South.

Given such quirks, the fact that a third, high-prestige summit will be held in Pyongyang, while none have taken place in Seoul, has not escaped attention.

“I don’t like it,” said Lim Tae-hoon, a Seoul university student, when asked about the issue Tuesday. “We are going to them – again! Why don’t they come to us?”

Certainly, there are risks should Kim come to South Korea. While security would probably be tight enough to forestall any possible assassination attempt by hard right-wing people or North Korean defectors, protests against Kim would be a near certainty.

The sensitivity of this cannot be overstated, for in North Korea, Kim is revered almost as a god, beloved of his people. In 2003, North Korean cheerleaders visiting South Korea for that year’s Universiade caused a minor ruckus by stealing a banner of Kim Jong-il that was getting wet in the rain.

While North Korean state media could censor footage or images of protests, South Korean and global media would not – and external media is increasingly smuggled into North Korea.

An optical illusion

With both Koreas striving to be seen as the sole legitimate ruler of all Koreans, north and south, the bigger reason may be optical, given both East Asian dynastic protocols and global diplomatic procedures.

Prior to the first inter-Korean summit, held between then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang in 2002, there had been no recognition by either side of the legitimacy of the government on the other side of the DMZ.

“Kim Dae-jung broke the ice and said: ‘I will come to your capital, so recognizing that there is a government there’ – the military guard and all the diplomatic formalities signal something, they mean recognizing that this is a country,” said David Mason, an expert on traditional Korean culture who teaches at Sejong University.

“Obviously, after that, the leader of North Korea should have come to Seoul as a reciprocal thing – that is standard diplomacy. But he refused, even though he was invited several times.”

However, as their leader has never dignified the southern capital with a return visit, North Korean media can continue to label the South a “puppet state” of the United States, Mason said.

This is reinforced by diplomatic practices. “When the South Korean president is elected, he goes to Washington and China first, and later, the US president and the Chinese president or premier visits South Korea,” Mason said. “There is a protocol to these things.”

In a nation which is, essentially, a third-generation neo-monarchy, there may even be echoes of past dynastic practices. When China was pre-eminent in Northeast Asia, the emperor of the “Middle Kingdom” would summon vassals – envoys, or junior royals – from the periphery to the center.

“I think this is the North Korean leader, who wants to tell his people that the outsiders are coming to him, rather than him to them,” explained Timothy Atkinson, a translator of Chinese classical annals from Korea’s last royal dynasty. “That is the way it was: The hegemon would stay put and people would have to come to him.”

What’s in a name?

The two states have been striving for mastery on the peninsula since they were separately established in the midst of the Cold War in 1948. The very names of the two reflect attempts to seize control of the past, so shoring up the legitimacy of what are, essentially, two very young governments.

The world knows the two countries, respectively, as: North Korea or, more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); and South Korea or, more formally, the Republic of Korea (ROK). However, this is not what they call themselves in the Korean language.

Historically, the Korean peninsula was ruled by a succession of royal kingdoms. The last such, Joseon – also spelled Choson or Chosun – established itself in Seoul in 1392 and survived until 1910, when Korea was annexed by Japan.

But in the waning years of his dynasty, the last Joseon king changed the national name to the Daehan Empire – “The Empire of the Great Korean People.” This is echoed in the modern name for South Korea, “Daehan Minguk” – literally, “the Great Republic of the Korean People.”

North Korea calls itself “Choson” – the old name used by the last dynasty, and the same word Japan used for Korea. Such continuity dates back centuries, but even then, the dynasty that was founded in 1392 was not the first to use the name.

Choson is also the name for a semi-mythic, iron-age dynasty in northern Korea and Manchuria. It was succeeded by the Goguryeo Dynasty in the same area, which has clear historical roots. Some Koreans believe it was ancient Koreans, rather than Chinese, who dominated the region, giving rise to a belief in past glories.

“They probably want to hark back to that mystical time when, in their minds, they were ruling Northeast Asia,” said Atkinson of the Pyongyang regime. “Maybe, that nationalism goes really deep.”

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