North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s third summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, held in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, produced an offer on Wednesday for Kim to visit South Korea “in the near future.”
Moon said at a joint press conference with Kim that he expected the North Korean leader to make a historic visit to the South as part of his “firm commitment to exert active efforts to make the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons and nuclear threat and turn it into a land of peace.”
Moon laid out a number of cooperative projects and diplomatic exchanges between the North and South, including rail and road projects, reactivating the Gaesong Industrial Complex, restoring the tourist industry at Geumgangsan Mountain, and coordinating environmental and medical services.
Geumgangsan Mountain’s tourist industry was once a reliable source of hard currency for the North Korean regime, good for at least $40 million a year. Kim Jong-un has long dreamed of luring foreign investment to build more resorts in the area. South Korean tourism halted in 2008 when the North Koreans killed a visitor who wandered into an “off-limits” area. Reviving the industry has been a constant objective of Pyongyang’s diplomacy during the decade since then. Seoul responded by asking for assurances that tourists will not be taken hostage or murdered.
Moon concluded his list of joint projects and exchanges by noting that an art troupe from North Korea is due to visit Seoul in October. The South Korean president hinted that Kim would be welcome to join them.
“The ‘Coming of Autumn’ performance will bring South and North Korea even closer. I invited Chairman Kim Jong Un to visit Seoul, and Chairman Kim agreed to come before long,” Moon said.
“Here, ‘before long’ has an implication that it would be within this year barring extraordinary circumstances,” he clarified. “Chairman Kim’s visit to Seoul would be the first by a North Korean supreme leader, and it is expected to become a monumental milestone in inter-Korean relations.”
Moon and Kim are scheduled to conclude their summit with a joint visit to Mount Paektu on Thursday. Paektu is a volcanic mountain with a lake in its crater that is sacred to North Korea because the ruling Kim family’s bloodline is said to have originated there.
The Washington Post was a bit underwhelmed by these developments, pointing out on Tuesday that “very little of substance” has been announced during the Moon-Kim summit, not even a tentative date for Kim’s historic visit to South Korea.
Crucially, the summit has not produced the sort of firm commitments from North Korea that would entice U.S. President Donald Trump to arrange a second meeting with Kim, a meeting the dictator has expressed a strong desire to hold. President Moon was very much hoping Kim would offer such commitments to keep the diplomatic ball rolling.
Moon, on the other hand, appeared willing to set aside concerns about the inhuman evil of the North Korean regime and play along with Kim’s pretense that his country just needs a new coat of paint to look presentable:
Moon and Kim drove through the streets, past more cheering crowds chanting “Unification! Unification!” They started in separate cars before joining each other in a single open-top car, Moon saluting the crowds enthusiastically and beaming broadly.
He later said he was surprised to see how developed Pyongyang was. There was no hint of concerns about its human rights record.
“I could see Chairman Kim’s leadership and accomplishment in his attempt to improve the lives of the people through developing science and the economy,” Moon said at the dinner.
Kim appeared marginally more grounded in reality as he escorted Moon to his lodgings at a state guesthouse earlier in the day.
“Mr. President visits many countries around the world. Compared with developed countries, we are a bit shabby,” Kim said, according to a pool report, adding that although the accommodation and itinerary might be “subpar,” they were presented “with our best sincerity.”
The North Koreans put on a great show of friendship, waving flags that showed a unified Korean Peninsula and tossing flowers at Moon, who was visibly moved by the reception he received. He was also the first visiting dignitary to be personally received at the Pyongyang airport by Kim Jong-un since he came to power.
Moon said before departing that his objective was to achieve “irreversible, permanent, and unwavering peace, regardless of what might happen on the global arena.” Symbolic gestures are a necessary but insufficient step in that direction. Joint events can be easily canceled, and cooperative projects between the two Koreas have been dismantled in a matter of hours. The larger military “buffer zone” agreed to by Moon and Kim is a minor tweak to the uneasy truce that has held for six decades.
President Trump has expressed his approval of the process so far, but it has yet to reach a meaningful destination. A landmark visit to Seoul in the very near future would give Kim Jong-un an opportunity to make some real history.