Expectations are sky-high as Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un is to meet his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, on Friday. The world will be watching every move as the once estranged neighbours will hold the first summit in a decade, at the Peace House in the truce village of Panmunjom.
This will also be the first time that a North Korean leader will enter South Korea as the previous meeting, between Kim Jong-Un’s father and his then counterpart, president Roh Moo-Hyun, was held in Pyongyang in 2007. The summit has the potential to be historic as this time both sides have shown the willingness to remain committed to peace by taking measures to address each other’s reservations. But will it ensure security to super rich Seoul and durability to Kim’s regime?
Over the last few weeks, Seoul and Pyongyang set up a direct hotline between the leaders of the two countries, and have worked out every detail of the summit agenda. The agenda includes talks over turning the armistice deal into a peace deal and denuclearising the region. But the most important, yet unanswered, question is: how can it practically be achieved in an irreversible manner?
The outcome of the summit depends on a number of factors as North Korea will also defend strategic interests of its closest ally China and neighbour Russia, whereas South Korea has the responsibility to project the American and Japanese concerns. However, it is a good omen that Pyongyang has not only started paying heed to the demilitarisation and verification proposals, but has also agreed to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and shifting its focus from security to economy.
An astute Moon is heading the demilitarised zone with an open mind and multiple options to deal with a sharp Kim who seeks a sanctions-free economy, removal of nuclear assets from Seoul and a peace treaty. It will be a blessing for the region if such a treaty is agreed to and the 1953 armistice, that ended the bloody Korean War without healing the wounds, is replaced. Returning a demilitarised zone into its original state, removing lethal batteries from borders, reducing the deployment of troops and increasing inter-Korean ties can definitely be a few steps towards normality. For Japan, releasing a few abductees will be a sign of wider peace in the region. But the liberal Moon, unfortunately, does not have the full authority to solve every issue. He can, at best, listen to Kim’s proposals and tactfully make him realise what should he expect when he finds Trump on the table for the final settlement.
North Korea’s young marshal carries the genes of his father, Kim Jong-Il, and legendary grandfather Kim Il-Sung, and recently had a refresher course in diplomacy during his visit to China. In his banquet speech, Kim admitted that “The first place of my foreign visit is the capital city of the PRC is too natural for me, and it is an expression of my ennobling obligation to prize the DPRK-PRC friendship like my life itself and carry it forward”. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leader has also hosted the US secretary of state nominee and current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and his top officials have held secret discussions with their American counterparts in South Korea and China.
Meeting Moon Jai-in before Trump will give Kim the opportunity to further boost his standing as a statesman. He already has a feather in his cap for sending his sister to lead the delegation at the Winter Olympics held in South Korea. The meeting is also quite significant for the South Korean president as his parents were refugees who fled Hungnam, North Korea, in the early 1950s, and Moon has always championed a nuanced policy for Pyongyang.
It was an embattled Kim who aggressively pursued a nuclear and missile programme since he took office in 2011. Along with the supreme command, Kim had also inherited a clandestine nuclear programme from his father who kept the US engaged in six-party talks while also continuing to develop weapons. Kim only attracted UN sanctions and condemnation from the West after he raised the anti-ballistic missile range and claimed having achieved the capability to target all of the US. For the isolated regime, nukes remained the ultimate guarantee for peace. So, is it a generational leap or tactic to buy more time now that Kim Jong-Un has closed down nuclear sites? The answer to this question can be traced through the recent international developments.
In the last few months, the North Korean leader had found himself cornered and his country under immense pressure as even its closest ally, China, terminated export of oil products, and directed banks to stop doing business with North Korea. Kim must have also kept an eye on Syria which is being torn into three to four regions despite Russia militarily backing Bashar al-Assad. The tragic fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who traded nuclear programme for economic uplift, would have definitely played in Kim’s mind many a time before he toyed around with the luring idea of accepting economic and politicalsweeteners.
It is unrealistic to assume that Kim has ignored how Trump backtracked from the US-Iran nuclear deal, despite Barack Obama championing it. He is aware that even the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified Iran’s compliance and all the other signatories are also standing by Tehran, yet an enigmatic Trump is bent upon breaking the deal. Will Kim be luckier than all and enjoy a reliable guarantor who will ensure the safety of his regime by reversing decades-old strategy? Will an opportunistic Trump not pull back from offering incentives once Kim is baited in the name of incentives? If the answer to both the questions is yes, then for a dramatic turnaround in world history, six countries involved in pursuing peace in the region deserve a Noble Prize.
The writer is a senior journalist associated with Geo News