South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyon expressed hope on Tuesday that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un will follow through on his promise to visit Seoul and make the trip a “stepping stone” to his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Kim will become the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea if he makes the journey.
“If a fourth inter-Korean summit takes place under this administration, it will have various meanings. It would be greatly meaningful in that an inter-Korean summit can play a role as a stepping stone ahead of a North-U.S. summit,” Cho told a meeting of the South Korean National Unification Advisory Council.
Kim Jong-un made a vague commitment to visit Seoul at an “early date” during his September meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang. Moon responded with a firm invitation to host Kim in Seoul by the end of December.
The New York Times noted on Monday that Moon’s administration placed a sizable political bet on Kim showing up before New Year’s Day:
If Mr. Kim doesn’t show up in Seoul this month, it will be a huge letdown for Mr. Moon, who has repeatedly told his people that Mr. Kim promised to try. The South Korean government has been preparing for the visit for weeks. A large artwork showing Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon smiling and shaking hands was even installed last week outside the Blue House, Mr. Moon’s official residence.
But with only three weeks to go, the window appears to be closing for a December visit, and officials have begun sounding less optimistic. And any delay could complicate efforts for a second summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump, though some analysts say that Mr. Kim may see no incentive to meet Mr. Moon before sorting out his differences with Mr. Trump.
“Our government has been making preparations for an inter-Korean summit in Seoul, keeping all possibilities in mind,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a presidential spokesman, said on Sunday. “As of now, nothing has been determined. There are many things to consider if a Seoul visit is to take place, so we do not intend to be in a hurry or to ask them to hurry.”
The NYT noted that neither Pyongyang nor Washington appear to be in a “hurry,” which is Moon’s problem. His invitation to visit Seoul was issued with three months on the clock. Now that it is down to three weeks, Moon officials sound a little disingenuous when they insist the date of Kim’s prospective visit does not matter.
Kim, in turn, has some political leverage over Moon, whose approval ratings have tumbled a good 30 percent as North Korean peace talks appeared to stall out. Saturday saw two demonstrations in Seoul: one held by a student group eager for Kim to make a historic friendship visit to the South Korean capital, and another demanding Kim stay away until North Korea makes good on its promise to denuclearize.
The latter demand was echoed by South Korean conservatives in parliament. “Kim’s visit should be made after North Korea makes practical steps to denuclearize its nuclear weapons,” insisted a spokesman for the largest opposition party, Liberty Korea (LKP).
“Our government’s submissive attitude can make North Korea arrogant and trigger a backlash from our people,” warned another opposition leader, Sohn Hak-kyu of the Bareun Mirae Party (BMP).
These critics believe Moon made a mistake by offering a highly-publicized invitation to Kim without requiring immediate acceptance since Moon looks increasingly desperate as December ticks away.
Critics also say Moon’s invitation was not well thought-out because Kim surely would not receive anything comparable to the rapturous state-organized reception given to Moon when he visited Pyongyang in September. South Korea does not march people into the street at gunpoint to smile or frown as the political needs of the state require, and it would not make protesters disappear to please the visiting North Korean tyrant. The capstone of a Kim visit would be the North Korean leader addressing South Korea’s parliament, but opposition representatives would be unlikely to sit still for his speech and supply polite applause.
The New York Times mentioned theories that North Korea has been working backstage to set up Kim’s visit but balked due to concerns about the Dear Leader’s dignity and security. On the other hand, many South Koreans seem genuinely excited at the prospect of cementing improved diplomatic relations by welcoming Kim to Seoul.
Among the stranger signs of the South Korean public mood shifting are remarkably brisk sales for “Unification Moisture Nuclear Masks,” which have been the talk of Seoul’s thriving fashion industry since the first inter-Korean summit. The masks resemble Kim Jong-un’s face and are packaged in boxes covered with North Korea-style slogans such as “Baekdu Mountain spring water makes skin strong!” They cost $149 apiece and Seoul retailers reportedly cannot keep them in stock, which is all the more remarkable because the masks are technically illegal under South Korean laws prohibiting the distribution of anything that could be construed as North Korean propaganda.
A meeting between North and South Korean officials in the border town of Kaesong on Friday renewed speculation that Kim will make his trip to Seoul, although the Unification Ministry refused to confirm his travel plans were discussed at the meeting. The South Korean rumor mill currently speculates Kim will stay in Pyongyang for the December 17 commemoration of his father Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 and make a final announcement about visiting South Korea sometime thereafter. South Korean officials have said the last few details of a Kim visit could be hammered out in ten days or less.