Certainly, North Korean President Kim Jong-Un doused the tension in the Korean Peninsula last week after he made a surprise visit to China, travelling with his wife Ri Sol Ju and top government officials in an amoured train.
It was the first time the reclusive president would be stepping out of the country since he was inaugurated in 2011. Kim’s two-day unofficial visit to Beijing came amid reports that he and his foe, United States President Donald Trump, have agreed to meet in May to discuss the nuclear crisis before it spirals into armed conflict. Similarly, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have agreed to meet on April 27.
Though Kim was in China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, the fact that he honoured the invitation did not only show seriousness in him but also a clear sign that there could be a peace deal between Pyongyang and the United States, if they eventually meet in May. But, more importantly, the trip reveals another side of the youthful president: he is a listening president who wants to return the country to mainstream world affairs.
North Korea has been isolated for too long due to its uncompromising posture on matters of ideology and supremacy, particularly in the Korean Peninsula.
Since coming to power, Kim has demonstrated that he is committed to defending the integrity of the dynasty and would not succumb to any external pressure that would make him betray the politburo. Pyongyang has remained headstrong in pursuing its nuclear programme even in the face of condemnation from the international community, including the United Nations. Its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, have since been living in fear of a likely missile strike after Pyongyang said the programme was unstoppable.
Last year, Kim shocked Americans when he announced that his government was prepared to hit the US territory of Guam with four missiles. State media had reported that North Korea would fire Hwasong-12 rockets across Japan and “land in the sea about 30km (17 miles) from Guam. Guam is a Pacific island that hosts a US “military base, strategic bombers and about 163,000 people.”
In its responses, Washington had warned that any attack on Guam could mean the end of Kim’s regime. US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said North Korea would be “grossly overmatched;” 2017 would end with Kim and Trump engaged in a war of words to the extent that some observers had concluded that it would escalate to full-fledged war between the two countries. The Korean Peninsula has since remained tension-soaked.
But what would have made Kim accept Xi’s invitation to discuss denuclearization? Over the years, Pyongyang has always highlighted its nuisance value in the Korean Peninsula to browbeat its neighbours and their allies, particularly Washington, into making economic concessions. This time, it may not be different.
Kim gave an insight into the motive behind his new peace dance when he reportedly told his Chinese host, “In this spring full of happiness and hopes, I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of DPRK-China friendship, and facilitate peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
Kim pledged his commitment to denuclearization as a measure to bring peace and stability to the peninsula; while assuring that he was prepared to give up his nuclear programme, he was quick to demand commensurate compensation from Washington. For example, reports quoted him as demanding that US reciprocate with incentives like fuel oil shipments.
Perhaps, Kim’s plot to ensure Pyongyang is adequately compensated and recognised as an equal partner in world affairs by the US, might have made him to say that the process of denuclearization would be “phased, synchronized.” Analysts have read between the lines and concluded that Kim’s call for step-by-step denuclearization process is an indication that Pyongyang and Washington are going into a long-drawn period of negotiations.
Though Trump has responded positively to Xi’s confirmation of Kim’s readiness to dismantle his nuclear programme, what is yet to be heard is how Washington would respond to Kim’s demand for reciprocity. Trump may be unwilling to tone down his demand for a complete denuclearization process if Kim makes ‘boring’ demands.
Already, analysts are apprehensive that except the chief mediator, China, plays its cards well, the proposed meeting between Trump and Kim in May would be unfruitful. They point to past negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which eventually collapsed as both parties “accused each other of reneging on those phased measures.”
Nevertheless, what is certain is that the current moves by all the parties involved in the peace process would bring some sanity to the peninsula as the drums of war would be silenced for a while to make way for negotiations. Even then, hope is not lost yet. The US, South Korea, Japan and China seem to be threading cautiously, mindful of the challenge of securing peace and stability in the region.
It is of note that the US is involved in the crisis courtesy of its alliance with South Korea and Japan. Though Washington and Pyongyang are traditional ideological enemies, America’s primary concern is the defense of South Korea, in the event of an attack by North Korea.
However, an attack on Seoul by North Korea is not likely soon and indeed may not occur as Kim has now vowed to “write a new history of national reunification.” He reportedly made the pledge during a meeting with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang. Reports said the meeting lasted for four hours with Kim’s wife Ju and sister Kim Yo Jong in attendance.
It was the first time Kim has engaged South Koreans in talks face-to-face since coming to power. CNN quoted North Korea’s state media, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), as saying it was an “openhearted talk” over issues aimed at “improving the North-South relations and ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
Analysts believe that Kim’s meeting with the South Korean delegation in person was a strong testimony of his willingness to promote peace and stability in the region. They cite the example of Kim’s failure to meet with “a senior Chinese envoy who was sent to North Korea for rare talks in November 2017” as well as “former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who travelled to Pyongyang for a rare visit nearly four years ago.”
On the other hand, South Korea has been upbeat about improved relations with the North. Even as Trump blows hot over the intransigence of President Kim, President Moon had always been a proponent of negotiation and engagement as the right option to quenching the embers in the region.
He has demonstrated the commitment of his government to peace by extending the hand of brotherhood to the North. This he amply demonstrated during the Olympic détente when the South’s special delegation visited Pyongyang. It is also on record that he accorded the North’s pre-Olympic delegation that was in Seoul cordial reception.
Interestingly, Kim’s sister Jong who led North’s delegation to the Winter Olympics opening ceremony did invite Moon to visit North Korea. Jong is a member of Kim’s kitchen cabinet and she serves as head of the government’s propaganda department.
To further strengthen ongoing consultations, Kim and Moon will meet on April 27, at the Peace House, a South Korean building in Panmunjom, described as a truce village on South Korea’s border. It would be the first time a North Korean leader would set foot on the soil of South Korea since the end of the Korean War, reports said.
Commenting on the two leaders planned meeting, South Korean’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said: “The South and North agreed on efforts to make the summit successful, sharing its historic significance in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, settling peace there and improving inter-Korean relations.”
According to reports, the meeting would be the third ever held between leaders of the two Koreas. “Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il met with two South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 in Pyongyang.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez has since welcomed news of the proposed meeting and expressed the hope that it would be successful.
“I think there is here an opportunity for a peaceful solution to something that, a few months ago, was haunting us as the biggest danger we were facing,” Gutierrez said.
Meanwhile, as the world awaits the Kim-Trump meeting, it is on record that Trump would be the first US President to agree to have direct talks with a North Korean President. For many analysts, this is a rare gesture coming from a boastful and arrogant American President who had earlier threatened to wipe out Pyongyang.
The challenge before Beijing now is how to keep up the tempo. China, in its role of a Big Brother in the region, is conscious of the negative impact a nuclear war in the region could have on China’s economic development and growth. It need not be emphasized that China might not be able to cope with the influx of refugees from North and South Korea, including other likely targets like Japan.
Above all, the international community would heave a sigh of relief if peace returns to the Korean Peninsula. The crisis in the region has been a nightmare for all. Therefore, this rare opportunity for dialogue and engagement must be pursued with sincerity, with the sole objective of silencing the drums of war forever.