In the latest stage of a relationship that appears to be blossoming far beyond the standards of normal diplomatic conviviality, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday took an expedition, with their wives, to the peak of a famously iconic mountain.
The expedition was mounted after two days of intense summitry in Pyongyang. During the talks, Kim agreed to allow international inspections of the dismantling of a missile engine test site and shut down his main nuclear complex – albeit, the latter move would be conditional upon reciprocal US moves.
A range of inter-Korean agreements were also struck, including moves to start linking the two Korea’s transport networks by the end of the year, to upgrade relations between divided families and to reopen a shuttered inter-Korean industrial park and a separate inter-Korean tourist resort, both in North Korea.
But if the first two days of the three-day, two-night summit were work, the last day was play, with the leaders of both Koreas engaging in a highly optical mountaintop PR maneuver that will have significant emotional resonance on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.
And indeed, during the three days of the summit, Kim appears to have turned the charm onto the highest setting, from the moment he greeted Moon as he stepped off his airplane. How much goodwill this will translate into, as the two Koreas work to implement the various agreements they have made over the coming months, remains to be seen.
What does appear clear, from a range of tweets and spoken comments by Donald Trump since June, is that Kim’s personal charm has also worked on the US president.
Conflict experts were impressed at the engagement underway between the Koreas.
“We are seeing nascent confidence building measures being enacted, and these have been sorely lacking,” said Alex Neill, a Shangri-La Dialog Senior Fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies Asia in Singapore. “To see them starting to happen on the Korean peninsula is encouraging.”
However, many were even more impressed by Kim’s masterly disinformation strategy.
“Kim has managed to throw a kind of smokescreen over what is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world; in a world of debate over fake news and disinformation operations, he has shown he is an adroit player,” Neill added. “He is molding this idea of North Korea actually being far more benign than people imagine.”
Post-summit summit pose
Moon, who once served in South Korea’s special forces and holds a judo black belt, is known for his sprightly fitness and is a keen hiker. Questions hang over the fitness of his younger but portlier counterpart: During his periodic disappearances from the spotlight, South Korean media speculates about Kim’s state of health.
The two leaders flew to the mountain’s airport in their respective jets; a funicular railway leads up to the summit. Press pool images showed both couples beaming at the summit. None were dressed in mountain gear, suggesting little actual hiking had taken place.
Korea is a mountainous peninsula, and Koreans on both sides of the border revere their most scenic peaks in paintings, photography, poetry and song. Mount Paekdu, an extinct volcano straddling the North Korea-China border, is arguably the most iconic mountain on the peninsula, complete with a scenic lake in its crater that is legendarily home to a water dragon – a legend that may be grounded in real-life seismic activity.
In North Korea, the rugged, forested slopes of the mountain were, according to state media, the birthplace of the nation’s second-generation leader, Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un. According to these accounts, the child was born to Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first-generation leader, at a time when the latter was a communist partisan combating colonial Japanese forces.
While the first Kim was, indeed, a guerrilla commander, many non-North Korean historians believe the second Kim was in fact born in the Russian Far East, where his father fled after Japanese counter-insurgency operations drove him across the border.
Such accounts do not appear in North Korea, where the Kim’s DNA is known as the “Mount Baekdu Bloodline.”
South Koreans also idolize the mountain. The national anthem references Mount Baekdu in Korea’s far north, and Mount Halla, another extinct volcano on the island of Jeju, in the distant south. Posters and images of Baekdu’s lake are ubiquitous, often seen hanging in Seoul restaurants and homes.
Many South Koreans – who are forbidden from traveling to North Korea – make pilgrimages to the mountain from the Chinese side.
While images of the two Korean leaders posing on the summit may speak to many of their citizens, they irked others.
“Whether it’s attending the mass games or bowing to the North Korean people or hiking up Mount Baekdu, all of it will be used by the North Korean regime to bolster their propaganda,” said John Lee, a columnist with specialist media NKNews. “It will appear that Moon, a former human rights lawyer, is making a pilgrimage to the North, one of the most repressive regimes in the world.”
“The main purpose of Moon’s visit to North Korea should be denculearization and nothing else,” added Jang Song-hyon, a retired Seoul businessman. “This is symbolic, this is more like a show.”
Diplomacy on steroids
The unscheduled hike, in which Moon and Kim were joined by their wives, indicates that on the personal front, they are getting along famously. The pair have now met three times: previous South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun only met Kim Jong Il once each.
Asked in 2012 by a foreign journalist as to whether Kim was a man he could do business with if he became president, Moon – then a National Assemblyman – replied that he did not have to like Kim to conduct business with him.
However, now he is president and is dealing with Kim, their body language is expressive of a burgeoning friendship, if not a bromance: They beam at one another, laugh, embrace and hold up each other’s hands.
Moon is a former human rights lawyer who defended pro-democracy activists and leftists against right-wing authoritarian governments in Seoul in the years leading up to 1987, when South Korea transitioned to full democracy.
Kim oversees a nation where such basic freedoms as speech, association and travel are unknown. His judicial system lacks due process and is notorious for its human rights abuses. Kim ordered the execution of a disloyal uncle and is believed to have ordered the assassination of his half brother in a Malaysian airport, using a nerve agent.
“It is definitely an irony,” seethed retiree Jang of the meeting between the ex-human rights activist and the dictator. “Actually, Kim should be tried in the International Court of Justice for all he has done to his own people.”
“There is a way to conduct more cordial diplomacy with North Korea other than appearing to appease a tyrant’s ego,” added John Lee, a columnist with North Korea specialist media NKNews. “[Egypt’s] Anwar Sadat and [Israel’s] Yitzhak Rabin are examples of leaders who engaged in peace overtures without appearing to appease the enemy or weakening their respective alliances.”
Yet, however dictatorial he may be, Kim apparently wields personal charm.
South Koreans have said how impressed they were when they heard him speak at the first summit with Moon in April. Members of the delegation of US basketball player Denis Rodman, the only North Americans to have spent significant social time with Kim, have spoken of his conviviality, humor and bonhomie.
There are plentiful examples of charming dictators. The latest major biographer of the 20th century’s greatest dictator, Volker Ullrich, has focused much of his work on Hitler’s personal charisma. “People like [Uganda’s] Idi Amin were regarded as real charmers, while [Soviet leader] Nikita Kruschev was this very colorful, jovial character with a sort of ebullience,” said Neill of IISS.
If Moon truly has been entranced by Kim, he may not be the only one. Since their historic summit in Singapore in June, Trump has spoken of Kim, in both verbal comments and in his trademark tweets, in terms of respect and almost endearment.
Kim, by forging relationships at the top, may be hoping to bypass the many experts, professionals and institutions in the South Korean and US governments that are more reticent about engagement with Pyongyang.
While US media brims with comments expressing reservations about loopholes in the recent summit announcements, Trump, who is facing major domestic political challenges, was upbeat.
“The relationships, I have to tell you, at least on a personal basis, they’re very good. It’s very much calmed down,” Trump said to US reporters on Wednesday. “We’re talking. It’s very calm. He’s calm. I’m calm. So we’ll see what happens.”
Game back on track – with a vengeance
Moon arrived back in Seoul on Thursday afternoon, just prior to South Korea’s biggest national holiday – Chuseok, or Harvest Thanksgiving – gets underway this weekend, running through to next Wednesday.
Washington is gearing up. Last month, Trump called off a visit to North Korea by his US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but on Wednesday, following the inter-Korean summit, Pompeo said he had invited North Korea’s foreign minister to meet in New York next week, with the aim of realizing denuclearization by January 2021.
Also next week, Moon is set to visit New York for a summit with Trump, during which he is expected to ask Trump for reciprocal steps.
There is also considerable talk underway about a second North Korea-US summit, although no concrete announcements have been made as yet. Moreover, Moon and Kim have agreed to meet again in Seoul before the year’s end. That will be their fourth bilateral summit, and will be the first time a North Korean leader has visited South Korea.