North and South Korea completed the destruction of 10 guard posts on either side of the Demilitarized Zone and removed personnel from those positions last week to make a portion of the heavily fortified border a real no man’s land. The two Koreas have thus accomplished one symbolic task in the list of tension-reduction measures signed by their top leaders in their summit in Pyongyang in September.
Work details from the South and North Korean armies have also finished clearing mines in the central region in preparation for the joint excavation of remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War. Bulldozers from each side will then open roads through old battlegrounds, hopefully before the end of the year, so that vehicles can move about in the hills where heavy fighting left many fatalities over six decades ago.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry sent 200 metric tons of tangerines to Pyongyang in return for the 2 tons of pine mushrooms that North Korean chief Kim Jong-un shipped to the South after September’s inter-Korean summit. Meanwhile, a team of railroad experts left here for an 18-day survey of North Korean railways in South Korean coaches that would be pulled by North Korean locomotives while they travel along the western and then eastern lines of the North.
Well, some may confidently cite the above developments as evidence that inter-Korean relations are visibly improving under the stewardship of President Moon Jae-in since the beginning of this year. They would further point out that there was no detonation of a nuclear device nor launching of any long-, short- or intermediate-range missiles by the North throughout the year. Pyongyang also showed the spectacles of demolishing some testing facilities.
But, regrettably, the keenest North Korea watchers here and in America have yet to find proof that Pyongyang has abandoned its decadeslong pursuit of nuclear power. Even if Kim visits Seoul, possibly before the end of this year, he cannot expect to see a true expression of welcome in a Southerner’s face unless he carries with him hard evidence that he has renounced his nuclear ambition.
In their latest get-together in Buenos Aires on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, US President Donald Trump told President Moon that he appreciated Seoul’s initiatives to reduce military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and create favorable conditions for denuclearizing North Korea. They also talked about prospects for Trump’s second meeting with Kim and the projected South-North summit.
Moon must be pleased by Trump’s positive comment on the reconciliatory steps the two Koreas have taken of late, as well as his affirmative stance on the inter-Korean summit. Now, Cheong Wa Dae is directing all attention to Kim’s visit to Seoul that he promised to make “in the near future.” If the North Korean leader sets foot on South Korean soil outside the Panmunjeom truce zone, it will close out a historic year of inter-Korean detente for which Moon would like to take full credit.
Here, we need to ponder what exactly Kim’s Seoul visit means and how desirable it is. Essentially, Kim must have three purposes in hoping to come to Seoul: To give, take and show.
He wants to give South Koreans the impression of a trustworthy brother who, though not quite well-to-do yet, has strived for self-sufficiency with enough arms for self-defense. He will also be carrying a long shopping list to take from the South the outcome of its decades of successful economic development efforts as much as possible. He also wants to show outsiders, especially Trump in the White House, that the two halves of the Korean Peninsula are ready to explore their future on their own.
In Singapore where he went to meet with Trump last June, a wide-eyed Kim had a night tour of the city through bustling shoppers and merry-makers. Some may call me insane, but I now fantasize about Kim walking the alleys of Myeong-dong and the labyrinth Dongdaemun and Namdaemun Markets where he would encounter a big crowd of international tourists and locals. Will he make a 90-degree bow to them as President Moon did to the welcoming citizens of Pyongyang?
There are reports of contrasting moves here, with some right-wing groups recruiting people to join a “Kim Jong-un arrest squad” to chase the North Korean leader when he comes here and some college students organizing welcoming bands in preparation for his visit. Yet, drawing real concerns are how extremist groups at both ends of the ideological spectrum in our society, such as the Minjunochong union on the left and the Gukmin Haengdong (National Action) force on the right, will come forward when Kim visits.
Yet, these are rather small risks that both the guests and hosts should be determined to overcome if they pursue the goal of reconciliation and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. As for the Southern public, individual restraint is required and collective maturity needs to be exhibited in order to convince their visitor of the strength of a free society. Disorderliness in the street proves the opposite.
Kim may decide to come to Seoul or defer it. He could be more preoccupied with his second summit with Trump, which will offer a chance for him to make a deal over an inventory of his nuclear arms, easing of the UN sanctions, the declaration of an end to the war and economic aid. Yet, a visit to Seoul is so much tempting because it would be a great chance to portray him as a peacemaker before spectators of the world while he could gain South Korean commitments to future aid.
President Moon says he believes people here will welcome Kim with open arms. Well, we cannot exactly guess the warmth of reception he gets here but his exposure to the realities of the South, I believe, can cause significant changes to his views on the South. First of all, his strategic philosophy based on the eventual destruction of the rival entity cannot but be revised when he sees how the same Koreans down here have done so much to upgrade their lives over the past decades.
We the good people of South Korea may well maintain generosity and patience toward the visitor from the North in a simple hope that his presence here will help stabilize peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as chief of the Korea Overseas Information Service in the 2000s. – Ed.