The backgrounds of the appointees to the three positions in question, all filled in early July, speak volumes about Moon’s intentions.
Suh Hoon, the former head of the National Intelligence Service, is now Director of the National Security Office.
Suh, a Seoul National University and Johns Hopkins University alumni, is a lifelong intelligence specialist who has spent decades as a full-time North Korea watcher and analyst.
He rose to prominence in the early 2000s when he played a major role in arranging the first inter-Korean summits, which happened in 2000 and 2007.
Suh’s replacement as the head of the intelligence service speaks further to Moon’s ambitions.
Park Jie-won is, at first glance, completely unqualified for his new appointment.
Born in 1942, Park is one of the oldest active politicians in South Korea. For decades, he has been seen as a master of parliamentary political intrigue and has played a prominent role in key events in the country’s politics since the late 1980s.
Yet for all his ability, intelligence, and skill for negotiation, Park has never worked in the field of foreign policy, let alone the highly specific field of intelligence.
…with one exception. In 2000, when former President Kim Dae-jung was working toward the first-ever inter-Korean summit, Park acted as a special envoy for his longtime boss and mentor.
Among other things, he was charged with the most delicate part of the entire operation: arranging and supervising the clandestine transfer of nearly half a billion U.S. dollars to North Korea, Pyongyang’s reward for taking part in the summit.
This transfer was done in open defiance of various legal regulations and landed Park in prison for two years.
So the new head of South Korean intelligence is a powerful senior politician who has no real record of anything to do with intelligence or foreign policy, just happens to have many personal connections in Pyongyang and has demonstrated remarkable efficiency, bravery, and risk-taking when he arranged the first inter-Korean summit.
Seems telling enough.
Both Presidents Moon and Trump are seeking another diplomatic spectacle because, to be frank, they both want to improve their approval ratings at home by treating the public to what can be presented as another masterpiece of negotiation and a major step toward North Korean denuclearization.
Of course, intentions don’t necessarily translate to reality. It takes two to tango, and the North Koreans haven’t shown much interest even while making clear that such proposals have been noted.
The two women currently running North Korean foreign policy — Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong and first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui — have both said that, in the current situation, Pyongyang has no wish to engage in talks with Washington.
On July 9, the day after President Trump expressed his desire to hold a summit, Kim Yo Jong said that in her “personal opinion… I doubt that things like the DPRK-U.S. summit talks would happen this year.”
These remarks should not necessarily be taken at face value, however. Kim Yo Jong added that she would like to continue with the U.S. and that such a position could be reconsidered if the Americans demonstrate they will soften their position on sanctions and some other key issues.
She even said that “it does not necessarily mean the denuclearization is not possible,” but that “it is not possible at this point of time.” All this hints at a willingness to talk.
Indeed, North Korea, in spite of its seeming weakness, now enjoys a strong negotiating position. Pyongyang feels that both Seoul and Washington seek another summit due to domestic political considerations.
This means that North Korea can do some tough bargaining on what it will gain for bestowing such political gifts to Presidents Trump and Moon.
Of course, intentions don’t necessarily translate to reality. It takes two to tango, and the North Koreans haven’t shown much interest
There are some serious problems that need to be solved before the next season of summitry, however.
To start with, the North Koreans will not agree to a summit unless they’re sure they’ll get some meaningful concessions — perhaps sanctions relief.
Yet it’s not clear how much South Korea and the U.S. are willing to give to get the North to sit and talk.
Sanctions are the issue to bargain with, though, but one cannot be certain whether the would-be participants will eventually come to an arrangement that satisfies everyone.
Also, the North Koreans see Trump as a lame-duck president and are aware that the next administration will not necessarily honor the obligations of the former.
From Pyongyang’s point of view, then, it might make sense to wait until when elections are over at the end of the year and then make a deal that would have a significantly longer life expectancy.
Another problem is Kim Jong Un’s health issues. Irrespective of what the Blue House and some others would like us to believe, his number of appearances at public events has dramatically declined as of late and shows no signs of improvement.
Currently, we don’t know how serious these health issues are. But it seems Kim needs constant medical attention and has problems moving around.
It’s also likely that the North Korean authorities don’t want the world to see the leader in an obviously fragile state.
Kim’s problems could seriously restrict a summit’s venue. He definitely wouldn’t be able to fly to Singapore, Hanoi, Ulaanbaatar, or any other distant place.
He’d probably have to stay on his own turf, but the U.S. President likely wouldn’t be able to meet him in Pyongyang (this wouldn’t be a major problem for the South Korean leader).
The venue would then presumably be somewhere close to the inter-Korean border, say on the Northern side of Panmunjom, or in the ancient and glorious city of Kaesong.
As a somewhat cynical realist — the outcome of thirty-five years of North Korea watching — I do not expect much from a summit that comes about as a result of the domestic political calculations of Kim Jong Un’s counterparts.
Chances are that these summits would be another diplomatic show with nebulous statements and photo-ops aplenty.
Nevertheless, North Korean diplomats may be able to extract some meaningful concessions, but this will mean some degree of reciprocation on their part as well.
It’s not impossible that we will see some kind of “small deal,” more or less similar to what was unsuccessfully discussed at Hanoi in 2019.
In other words, the North Koreans would agree to sacrifice a significant part of their known nuclear facilities — perhaps Yongbyon — in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions — for example, coal and/or textile exports.
As this author has been saying for decades, a “small deal” — or, preferably, a chain of “small deals” — is the only thing that is going to work in regard to the nuclear issue.
Let’s wait and see. There will probably (but not necessarily!) be a summit because some powerful people in Seoul and, to a lesser extent, in Washington want to see it happen.
And though while we shouldn’t expect too much from another diplomatic spectacle, no matter how magnificently it’s packaged for our consumption, such shows do little harm and a little bit of good.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made it clear in an interview last week that he would be interested in a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.