The Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence in Seoul. Photo: iStock
The Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence in Seoul. Photo: iStock

It would have been historic, it could have been historic, it should have been historic – but the much-ballyhooed visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to South Korea’s capital looks unlikely to happen. At least, for now.

“We judge that it would be difficult for Chairman Kim to visit Seoul this year,” a presidential official told Yonhap news agency. A Blue House official subsequently confirmed the report to Asia Times.

The news comes with high-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington stalled since early November, pending a second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump. Trump has suggested the meeting could take place in January or February.

It had been agreed during September’s Pyongyang summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the North Korean leader would visit Seoul. As is often the case with diplomatic agreements related to North Korea, the wording at the time was vague: “at an early date” was the written phrase.

However, the Moon administration had made clear that it expected the visit to take place before the end of the year.

Given that three South Korean presidents have visited Pyongyang, but no North Korean leader has ever made an official trip south to Seoul, the meeting would have been historic.

In fact, since the establishment of two separate states on the peninsula in 1948, is it believed that no North Korean leader has ever visited the South Korean capital.

However, some experts believe that during the Korean War, first-generation leader Kim Il Sung secretly visited Seoul in the summer of 1950, when the capital was under the control of North Korean troops. And some North Korean propaganda states that he directed the battle of Daejon, south of Seoul, in the same year. Neither of the claims has been confirmed.

Will he or won’t he?

South Korea’s chattering classes have been abuzz with speculation about the timing of Kim’s visit.

Even the Speaker of the National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, joined the chorus on Tuesday, telling foreign reporters he was traveling from December 17-25, so he did not expect Kim to visit between those dates.

However, he added: “It happens a lot of time in meetings between leaders that a date is determined at the last minute … I still have hope for this.”

Both pro- and anti-Kim demonstrators had been expected to hit the streets during any visit by the North Korean leader. There has also been speculation about locations.

It is widely assumed that Kim would visit the Blue House, the presidential mansion in north-central Seoul. Speaker Moon said on Tuesday that he would be willing to permit Kim to address the South Korean National Assembly, on Yeouido Island in central Seoul.

President Moon has said he might take Kim to Mount Halla on Jeju Island in Korea’s far south – thereby reciprocating the visit Moon took to Mount Baekdu in North Korea during their September summit.

It is not clear where Kim would stay, though visiting North Korean officials customarily stay at the Sheraton Walker Hill hotel, set on a steep hillside on the eastern outskirts of the city. While this makes travel to and from downtown problematic – it is a 30-minute motorcade drive – in security terms, the hotel makes sense: it is easily cordoned off, thereby restricting access to the public, including demonstrators.

It is not clear whether visiting North Koreans, who include Kim’s sister, Yo-jong, who stayed there during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, are aware of the hotel’s heritage. It was originally established as a recreation center for US troops in the 1960s and is named after General Walton Walker, an American killed while commanding US and UN troops in the early stages of the Korean War.

The postponement may be a minor blow to Moon – whose popularity ratings have slumped to the 50% range from a heady high at the start of the year when they were more than 80%.

“It would have been good to indicate that he is capable of delivering what he promised, but nonetheless, I do not see a big problem with the delay,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

“Both sides want this visit to happen because it is a part of their efforts to manage the American hardliners, therefore, I expect the visit to happen, and my knowledge is that the administration is working hard to get Kim here eventually,” Lankov added.

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