A friendly start
SEOUL North Korea’s state media yesterday trumpeted leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘‘immortal achievement’’ a day after he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and repeated past vows to remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula and work towards a formal end to the Korean War.
But despite the bold declarations, the leaders failed to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions, and analysts expressed doubts on whether the summit represented a real breakthrough.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, in typically fawning language, reported that the leaders exchanged ‘‘honest and heartfelt talks’’ at a summit that ‘‘was a realisation of the supreme leader’s blazing love for the nation and unyielding will for self-reliance’’. The state propaganda arm said Kim’s ‘‘immortal achievement will be brightly engraved in the history of the Korean nation’s unification’’.
Even if the substance on nuclear matters was light, the images at Panmunjom were striking: Kim and Moon set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together across the cracked concrete slab that marks the Koreas’ border.
The sight, inconceivable just months ago, allowed the leaders to step forward towards the possibility of a cooperative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread skepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.
On the nuclear issue, they merely repeated a previous vow to rid their peninsula of nuclear weapons, saying they would achieve a ‘‘nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearisation’’. This kicks one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a muchanticipated summit between Kim and United States President Donald Trump in coming weeks.
‘‘There is no reference to verification, timetables, or an attempt to define the word ‘complete’. It does not reiterate or advance Pyongyang’s unilateral offer to halt nuclear and ICBM tests,’’ said Adam Mount, a senior defence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
‘‘In practice, this statement should enable a US-North Korea summit to detail specifics about what, when, and how denuclearisation would occur, but it has not offered a head start on that process. All of the negotiation is left to a US team that is understaffed and has little time to prepare.’’
Still, the summit produced the spectacle of two men from nations with a deep and bitter history of acrimony grinning from ear to ear after Kim walked over the border to greet Moon, becoming the first leader of his nation to set foot on southern soil since the Korean War. Both leaders then briefly stepped together into the North and back to the South.
The summit marked a surreal, whiplash swing in relations for the countries, from nuclear threats and missile tests to intimations of peace and cooperation. Perhaps the change was best illustrated by geography: Kim and Moon’s historic handshake and a later 30-minute conversation at a footbridge on the border occurred within walking distance of the spot where a North Korean soldier fled south in a hail of gunfire last year, and where North Korean soldiers killed two US soldiers with axes in 1976.
Standing next to Moon after the talks ended, Kim declared that the Koreas were ‘‘linked by blood as a family and compatriots who cannot live separately’’.
The latest declaration between the Koreas, Kim said, should not repeat the ‘‘unfortunate history of past inter-Korean agreements that only reached the starting line’’ before becoming derailed.
What happened at the summit should be seen in the context of the past year, when the US, its ally South Korea and North Korea threatened and raged as the North unleashed a torrent of weapons tests – but also in light of the long, destructive history of the rival Koreas, who fought one of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts and occupy a divided peninsula that is still technically in a state of war.
Trump tweeted yesterday, ‘‘KOREANWARTO END!’’ and said the US ‘‘should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!’’.
Both Koreas agreed to jointly push for talks this year with the US and also potentially China to officially end the Korean War, which stopped with an armistice.
Many will be judging the summit based on the weak nuclear language. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests last year likely put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. The North, which has spent decades doggedly building its bombs despite crippling sanctions and near-constant international opprobrium, claims it has already risen to that level.
South Korean conservative politicians criticised the joint statement as letting North Korea off the hook by failing to secure a clear commitment on nuclear disarmament.
But Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, later this year; both leaders said they would meet and talk on a regular basis; and they settled their disagreement over their western maritime border, by designating it as a peace area and securing fishing activities for both countries. They also said they would resume temporary reunions of relatives separated by GETTY IMAGES
‘ I feel like I’m firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity.’ KIM JONG-UN
the 1950-53 Korean War.
‘‘I feel like I’m firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of [the two Koreas] writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity,’’ Kim told Moon as they sat at a table, which had been built so that exactly 2018 millimetres separated them, to begin their closed-door talks.
Kim acknowledged the skepticism.
‘‘We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfil them . . . There are skeptical views on whether the meeting today will yield meaningful results. If we maintain a firm will and proceed forward hand in hand, it will be impossible at least for things to get worse than they are now.’’
Expectations were generally low on the nuclear issue, given that past so-called breakthroughs on North Korea’s weapons have collapsed amid acrimonious charges of cheating and bad faith. Skeptics of engagement have long said that the North often turns to interminable rounds of diplomacy meant to ease the pain of sanctions – giving it time to perfect its weapons and win aid for unfulfilled nuclear promises. AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pose for photos during their summit in Panmunjom, South Korea. They repeated past vows to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, but failed to outline any new...