South Korean culture minister finds Kim Jong Un open, humorous

SEOUL, April 17 (UPI) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have an “open” mind and a “humorous side” and seems willing to continue cultural exchanges with the South, Seoul’s cultural minister said Tuesday.

In a briefing with foreign media, South Korea’s Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Do Jong-hwan said his recent encounter with Kim allowed him to confirm the potential of holding future inter-Korean exchanges.

Earlier this month, Do led a 160-member group of taekwondo athletes and famous K-pop artists to Pyongyang, where they staged two music performances, one attended by Kim.

During the 2 1/2-hour performance on April 1, Do said the young leader took great interest in “each and every act,” asking him about who the singer was and how the song was received in the South.

“This seemed to show that he is aware the concert would have sizable impact on North Korean citizens, as some 12,500 people would be in the audience at the Ryugong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium. Despite the possible impact, it showed that he has the willingness to continue exchanges,” Do said.

Kim, in fact, said he was pleased with the concert’s theme, “Spring is Coming,” before suggesting the two Koreas hold a follow-up concert in Seoul this fall called “Autumn has Come.”

Do said the meaning behind the suggested theme is significant, ahead of the inter-Korean summit planned for April 27, as well as a subsequent meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in May or June.

“He did not say ‘autumn is coming’ but ‘autumn has come.’ This is an expression we must closely observe,” Do said, indicating it may hint at the expectation of substantial progress in South-North relations by the fall.

The culture minister also said Kim was very meticulous, “taking care of matters from great to small,” and leading conversations “seamlessly.”

The young dictator appeared “natural” and “expressed his humor” several times, the minister said, citing Kim’s offer to kneel on the floor when taking a group photo as everyone couldn’t fit into the frame. He also joked about reporting to one of his regime officials.

“It was a meaningful and precious exchange, seeing him in his natural state,” Do said.

Amid improving ties between Seoul and Pyongyang, the liberal Moon Jae-in administration’s apparent fraternization with the North has generated some criticism.

Critics, particularly conservatives, have shown anger over the recent cross-border exchanges, as they have involved controversial Pyongyang officials, including Kim and Workers’ Party Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol, who is widely believed to be responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

Do acknowledged the criticism but said he is willing to speak to anyone for the sake of advancing cultural exchange, which could mark “the beginning of peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“There were times when I did not know who I would have to meet or greet or convene with until I got to the scene. I went with the thought that I would have to speak with anyone” to create opportunities for cultural exchange, he said.

During his four-day trip, Do met with his North Korean counterpart Kim Il Guk at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang.

They discussed various ways to expand sports exchange between the two sides and agreed to push for a joint entrance of South and North Korean athletes at the Asian Games in Indonesia, held from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2.

They decided to hold working-level talks on further areas of cooperation, including the athletes marching under a unified Korean flag, after the summit between Moon and Kim.

The summit will be vital for setting the “right atmosphere” for future exchanges, Do said.

“We, in South Korea, have the determination to create such an atmosphere and the North will need to have this willingness, too. The same goes for the U.S. through its own summit [with Pyongyang] and China too,” he said.

The minister added the two Koreas should sign a peace treaty. The South and North are still technically at war, as the 1950-53 war ended with an armistice agreement.

“It may be difficult to conclude a treaty in the first [inter-Korean] summit as there will also be discussions at the North Korea-U.S. summit. However, we can hold another [inter-Korean] summit to resolve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Hopefully, we will see fruition [from the summits] around autumn.”