Scenes at the border village of Panmunjom between South Korea and North Korea on Sunday seemed, at some points, to resemble a reality TV show.
The leaders of North Korea and the United States met in the small village for the first time. The bilateral meeting then turned into a trilateral one, with the President of South Korea joining them for a short chat.
The meeting was originally supposed to be a brief “handshake,” but it then evolved into a summit, with one-on-one talks lasting for 53 minutes.
The events were so unexpected, unprecedented, unparalleled, and mysterious that it is difficult to understand what happened and how to analyze it. So, first of all, let’s clarify what happened.
Lots of ‘first time ever’ events happened on that day. The summit meeting between Chairman Kim and President Trump was truly the first event of its kind since the truce village of Panmunjom was born in 1951.
The meeting was symbolic because it marked the end of the old era of hostility between the two countries and the beginning of the new era of peace, a point emphasized by the meeting taking place at the place that has been the symbol of conflict and hostility for 66 years.
The meeting was followed by a one-on-one dialogue for 53 minutes, turning the event from a “handshake meeting” to the third summit between Trump and Kim.
The two leaders appear to have discussed important issues like denuclearization and agreed to revive negotiations between the two countries — on hold for four months since the Hanoi summit ended in acrimony.
SOME NOTABLE FIRSTS
There were many firsts at Sunday’s meeting, the most prominent of which was the historical crossing by President Trump over the demarcation line with Chairman Kim.
President Trump made about 20 steps into North Korean territory — the first time an incumbent U.S. President had done such a thing. The move also had a wider significance, representing the totally new relationship between the North and the U.S.
Another first was how the event was organized. President Trump proposed the summit, but not through an official channel. He instead used Twitter, saying that he would meet Chairman Kim during his visit to the DMZ if the North Korean leader was open to it. It was the first time such a serious meeting between national leaders had been initiated through SNS communication.
The meeting was expanded when South Korean President Moon Jae-in joined and chatted with them, before and after the bilateral dialogue. Those three leaders are the commanders-in-chief of three nations that are technically still at war.
There were many firsts at Sunday’s meeting
That such a meeting went ahead was remarkable and shocking, reflecting and symbolizing the strong willingness of the leaders to change their long-hostile relationship into a peaceful one. It was truly a first-time event on the Korean peninsula.
A couple other “first time ever” events took place: the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. visited the ‘OP Ouellette’ observation post. President Trump was the fourth U.S. President to visit the site, but it was the first time the South Korean president had accompanied.
Also notable was Trump’s decision to wear a suit during his visit — his predecessors all sported military jackets when they visited the DMZ.
Trump was also the first U.S. President to visit Panmunjom, while the other former presidents had only visited military posts. That visit was only possible because of the improved security situation in the area, thanks in large part to the two Koreas’ military agreement in September last year.
The situation on the ground was pretty chaotic, but photos of the event can be categorized into two groups and can help us analyze the meaning and background of how the big day went down.
The first of these are the movements of Chairman Kim and President Trump. The second concerns the three leaders.
This grouping shows the hidden truth of the situation: that the negotiations between the North and the U.S. was in fact a three-legged race in which South Korea played an essential part.
It is important to note that the venue of the historic summit in Panmunjom was the Freedom House, on the South Korean side of the DMZ. The flags, tables, and other facilities for the summit were all provided by the South.
All sorts of logistical issues would have been present when the North Korean leader came south, including legal problems, security concerns, and political tension between the North and the South.
The fact that Chairman Kim accepted the Freedom House as the venue for the meeting underscores that President Moon would have been deeply involved in organizing the summit.
The idea of a meeting in Panmunjom was raised and discussed in Seoul many weeks before it actually took place.
Two days after the big day, President Moon Jae-in hinted that he had been involved in setting it up, saying that diplomatic imagination was sometimes necessary for the peaceful facilitation of diplomacy.
It was also President Moon who confirmed that the special event was scheduled three and a half hours before it took place in a press conference in the Blue House.
Both Chairman Kim and President Trump thanked President Moon for helping the meeting, and the photo of the three leaders in the same place could be evidence that the remarkable events were not possible without the proactive involvement of the South Korean President.
THE RACE IS BACK ON TRACK
What role did the South Korean side play in the past summits in Singapore and Hanoi? The answer is the same as in Panmunjom: that of the facilitator. In February last year, the idea of a summit with the U.S. President had likely never occurred to the North Koreans. Instead, Chairman Kim proposed a summit with President Moon.
However, Moon instead recommended Kim hold talks with the U.S. After Kim accepted the proposal, Moon sent his envoys to Washington DC to propose a summit with Chairman Kim. Trump accepted, and the two leaders met in Singapore just a few months later.
It was not an easy road, however. The summit was almost called off, as the North and the U.S. exchanged harsh words and preparations began to falter. President Moon then held a surprise summit with Chairman Kim at Panmunjom, clearing the troubles away and reigniting talks between Kim and Trump.
In the aftermath of the Singapore summit, negotiations between the two sides faltered and faced another round of crisis.
President Moon then visited Pyongyang and persuaded Chairman Kim to make the bold decision to promise the dismantling of all the nuclear facilities in the Yongbyon complex. Chairman Kim agreed to the idea and proposed it to President Trump at the Hanoi summit. The proposal was rejected by the U.S.
Kim was deeply disappointed with this strategy and blamed it on bad advice from the South. Thus, the three-legged race was suddenly disrupted and negotiations between the North and the U.S. entered a months-long impasse.
Now the race is back on track, with the South returning to its critical role as facilitator.
With the two runners lined up again with the help of the South, all three appear ready to run again.
We don’t know how much progress will be made, or how quickly. But we can be sure that they have a much better chance of reaching the finish line working together.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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