Last week’s historic inter-Korean summit put President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the spotlight, with the talks and events held at the truce village of Panmunjeom becoming a sort of coming-out party for the leader of one of the most isolated countries in the world.
Indeed, what the 34-year-old Kim said and did during his one-day get-together with Moon in the southern part of the demarcation line surprised many who had been accustomed to North Korean practices for engaging foreign leaders.
Openness was one thing that distinguished the European-educated Kim from his grandfather and father who had often been called “leader in seclusion” for their obsession with secrecy.
Kim agreed to live broadcast the moment of his first handshake with Moon across the border line, the welcoming ceremony and many parts of other events, including the scenes of their intimate, private talk on a wooden bridge in the afternoon.
The Moon-Kim talks was the third inter-Korean summit, and the previous two meetings, both held in Pyongyang, did not provide as much media access to the activities of the leaders as the Panmunjeom talks did.
The level of the North’s openness was all the more surprising in that Kim, who visited China last month -- his first overseas trip since ascending to power in 2011 -- strictly followed the traditional practice of his predecessors. Both North Korea and China had kept Kim’s visit in the dark until Kim returned home.
Kim also was seen speaking in a straightforward manner. He said it was bad that the two Koreas had not implemented past agreements and that doing so again would disappoint many people. He also acknowledged the poor state of the transportation system in his country, which would have been unimaginable with Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il who had described the North as a socialist paradise.
Indeed, the Kim the world saw at Panmunjeom was totally different from the man it had known through the ruthless purge of top officials, including one of his closest relatives, and the threat of a nuclear strikes against its enemy. His performance at Panmunjeom certainly added to the reconciliatory mood.
US President Donald Trump, who previously condemned Kim as “Little Rocket Man” on a suicide mission and even a “mad man,” said after the Panmunjeom talks that Kim was “very open” and “very honorable.” He also said the US-North summit will be taking place in several weeks.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who met Kim in Pyongyang last month also said that Kim is “prepared” to “lay out a map that would help us achieve that objective,” referring to complete denuclearization.
As if to bolster such a positive assessment of the North Korean leader, Cheong Wa Dae on Sunday disclosed that during a private conversation with Moon, Kim offered to open the shuttering the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to experts and journalists form South Korea and the US to ensure its transparency.
During his conversations with Moon, Kim mentioned several times his promise to abide by the Panmunjeom Declaration and other agreements made between the two Koreas, including the declarations that came out of the previous summits held in 2000 and 2007.
It has yet to be seen how Kim will follow up on his promise to seek a peaceful solution to its nuclear and missile programs. The upcoming NK-US summit will provide the first test for Kim’s real intention.
The Kim-Trump talks will also give other clues as to the real face of a man who, until the Panmunjeom summit, had been more known for his ruthless dynastic dictatorship and pursuit of dangerous weapons than for openness and rationality. We all know which way is better for North Korea and the world. To adopt Trump’s cliche, we will see.