On April 27, a few days from now, a most peculiar show is set to be staged at Panmunjom.
The date may ring a bell. Yes, it’s the anniversary of last year’s North-South summit: the first of three meetings in six months between the DPRK’s hereditary leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s elected President Moon Jae-in. What an amazing occasion, raising so many hopes.
Cue celebrations. According to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MOU), this event – called “The Long Road” – will feature performers from South Korea, the U.S., China, and Japan.
Your starter for ten. Spot the missing country. Yup, got it in one. North Korea won’t be there.
So here’s my suggestion for the Panmunjom playlist. The late Roy Orbison was not known to be a commentator on Korea. Yet the current situation between the two Koreas is, alas, crisply summarised in the title of one of his biggest hits.
Get the message? In case you didn’t – and I mean you, President Moon – the song rises to a crescendo. It’s Over, It’s Over, It’s Over. Then an amazing long high note. It’s Ooooooooover.
Did you, dear reader, fondly believe that 2018 marked a new dawn for inter-Korean relations? I confess I did. Silly me. Yet another triumph of hope over experience.
Last year had looked dizzying. Three North-South summits in six months, after just two in the previous 73 years of national division. Two substantial agreements, promptly implemented.
A border no-fly zone, with Panmunjom run jointly by unarmed troops. Groundbreaking for relinking roads and railways. Lots of meetings, discussing many things. A joint Olympic bid.
I could go on – but forget it. All that is so last year. The memory is too painful, the hopes dashed too hard. Won’t get fooled again, sang The Who.
Well I was, along with many others.
SPEED. SLOW. STOP
After 2018’s blistering pace, you couldn’t help but notice that in 2019 everything had slowed down. Actually, the deceleration began last fall, already.
Remember Kim Jong Un’s promised visit to Seoul, much hyped by Moon’s government? The crowds, the counter-demos, the ultra-tight security as the North’s leader strolled ‘casually’ along the Cheonggyecheon stream?
Sorry, just fantasizing there. Didn’t happen. On December 30, in a letter to Moon Jae-in, Kim pledged to meet “frequently” in 2019. No sign of that either.
And now it’s official, on many fronts. An April 18 headline in the Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo read: “North severs contacts in South.”
According to this, after the Hanoi summit, Southern NGOs and others involved in contacts with North Korea suddenly started getting the brush-off. One who was due to visit Pyongyang in April or May was sent a fax – always a fax – saying this would be “temporarily difficult”.
Many others got the same message. The only explanation: “Orders from superiors.” Another source told the JoongAng that Pyongyang – nay, Kim Jong Un personally – has ordered a halt to all talks with private Southern organizations about joint projects.
What has changed? Hanoi, of course
As with NGOs, so with government. This year, joint activities have ground to a halt. No more joint MIA searches, no joint military committee as previously agreed. The liaison office at Kaesong is not working properly, or indeed at all.
Three questions arise. Why the North’s sudden freeze? Is it at all justified? And is it smart?
We can answer the first, because Kim Jong Un told us. His big policy speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on April 12 was hard-line on all fronts, South Korea included.
The section on inter-Korean relations was basically one long grumble. Although notionally reaffirming his commitment to last year’s two accords, Kim in effect undermined that by explicitly warning that the DPRK is now facing a decision.
Should it “carry on the atmosphere of inter-Korean rapprochement”? Or alternatively, “return to the past when the tension spiraled up towards a catastrophe with the danger of war looming larger”?
Hang on. Was there a clause in either the Panmunjom or Pyongyang Declarations that said: “Oh, and I reserve the right at any time to walk away from everything that I have solemnly committed to if I feel like it”? No, I don’t recall that either.
So what has changed? Hanoi, of course. Kim mainly blamed “arrogant” U.S. pressure and “too perfidious” Southern conservatives – including “hawkish forces” in the military, interestingly.
But he was also mighty mean to Moon. Not by name, but with a gratuitous sneer at the “south Korean authorities” for “pos[ing] as a meddlesome ‘mediator’ and ‘facilitator’ as they busy themselves with foreign trips”.
This on the very day Moon returned from Washington, after a brief summit which tried but failed to reinvigorate the peace process. Donald Trump gave him no joy on sanctions relief. Indeed, he didn’t even deem Moon’s visit worth tweeting about.
Talk about a kick in the teeth. The phrase ‘ungrateful beggar’ springs to mind. One would like to hope it also sprang to Moon’s lips, even if he refrained from uttering it.
Such a hypocrite, too. Kim Jong Un well knows that had it not been for Moon’s energetic go-between role a year ago, he would never have gotten his two summits with Trump. Kim could at least show some thanks. Instead, he has tossed Moon aside like a used towel.
Kim’s trumped-up grievance is phony. How can he object to Moon trying to repair relations? His complaint that South Korea is not fighting the North’s corner is ludicrous.
Taken at face value, it shows neither understanding of nor respect for South Korea in its own right, let alone the dilemmas and political risks in Moon’s strategy. No one can possibly take this seriously.
Unlike some, I never believed Kim Jong Un was nice. But I did think he was smart. As I put it here in December, “this year Kim has played an absolute blinder; never putting a foot wrong.”
That was then. This year Kim seems to be losing his mojo. Spitting in Moon’s eye is not only not nice, but short-sighted and seriously stupid. Does he really think South Korean goodwill can be turned on and off like a tap, whenever he feels like it?
The aforementioned JoongAng article quoted some sources as hoping exchanges will resume in May. Others thought it would take a new North-South summit and a direct order from Kim.
But this begs the question. Maybe a few ROK Christian NGOs will endlessly turn the other cheek, and wait patiently for the DPRK to accept their generosity once more.
But even some of these meek souls must be starting to wonder whether being used and abused so cynically is truly the path to lasting peace and mutual respect on the peninsula.
Does he really think South Korean goodwill can be turned on and off like a tap, whenever he feels like it?
The average South Korean is another matter. People are not stupid, and they don’t forget. Last year domestic public opinion supported Moon Jae-in while his overtures to the North seemed to be bearing fruit – but turned on him when his policies failed to boost growth and jobs.
Humiliating Moon in voters’ eyes is really not smart of Kim. Admittedly, there seems no limit to how much kicking Moon will take. He still professes to be upbeat: saying he’s ready for a new summit anywhere – no longer insisting Kim comes to Seoul, so there goes reciprocity – while professing to be carrying a new message for Kim from Trump.
Honestly, which bit of ‘meddlesome mediator’ does he not get? Kim is not being nice, but he could hardly be clearer.
Like other papers, the JoongAng keeps tabs on who is reading what. On April 18 the top two items for ‘What’s Popular Now’ under national news were a striking pair:
1. Kim scorns Moon as ‘mediator’ 2. Moon wants another summit with Kim
That says it all. South Korean voters will not take kindly to their President endlessly abasing himself like a jilted suitor. Not only will Kim Jong Un go on rejecting him, but – crucially – even if Kim does switch the bonhomie back on, no one will ever believe him again. We know it’s phony now.
That really isn’t smart. Kim needed and had Southern goodwill, but he blew it. No ambiguity or benefit of the doubt remains. He was just using Moon to get to Trump.
At the risk of overdoing the pop references, many of us had looked to find a reason to believe. The long history of inter-Korean ups and downs – mainly downs – was hardly encouraging, but last year truly did raise hopes. (Mine are irrelevant, but South Koreans’ really matter.)
Kim needed and had Southern goodwill, but he blew it
Kim Jong Un has now blown that definitively: trampling on those in the South who dared to hope that blood counts, that Korea counts, that Kim might actually care.
On the contrary, he has shown that to him this is all just a big game of geopolitical chess – with South Korea a mere pawn, to be sacrificed once its usefulness is over.
I think Kim will regret his short-sightedness. If and when he does, he will find Moon much more circumspect, or a lame duck, or – if he leaves it too long – no longer around to help at all. South Korea’s next President may well be a conservative, and if so that will be Kim Jong Un’s fault.
What a crying shame. It could, and should, all have been so different.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps
On April 27, a few days from now, a most peculiar show is set to be staged at Panmunjom.The date may ring a bell. Yes, it’s the anniversary of last year’s North-South summit: the first of three meetings in six months between the DPRK’s hereditary leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s elected President Moon Jae-in. What an amazing occasion, raising so many hopes.Cue celebrations.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.