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Inter-Korea Summit: Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in's meet a positive step, but peace on peninsula still far off; here's why

The broad grins.
The warm, polite handshakes.
The elaborate parade.
The tête-à-tête on a blue bridge.
The careful shovelling of soil.
The elaborate dinner menu infused with meaning.
The slathering of symbolism across every little interaction.

With the exception of the impromptu hop back across the border with President Moon Jae-in in tow, everything about Kim Jong-un's historic first-ever visit to South Korea seemed to be as meticulously choreographed and stage-managed an exercise as the opening ceremony for the Seoul Winter Olympics nearly three months ago. Notably, that was the last time high-profile official visit by a North Korean delegation to its southern neighbour. But this time, it was the main man himself who made the journey.

It seems surreal that only a few months after the end of a year marked by a spree of hyperactive missile and nuclear tests, Kim would switch into reconciliation mode and turn up at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) with a huge smile on his face. After all, 2017 saw Kim at his most belligerent since taking charge as Supreme Leader of North Korea, with Pyongyang launching 16 missile tests — failed and successful ones — and reportedly conducting a nuclear test. The country also fired off two rockets over the Japanese island of Hokkaido that year.

And while Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean presidents Park Geun-hye and Moon tried their best to be stern with Kim, it was US president Donald Trump who got in the ring, as it were, with the North Korean leader. In fact, before the Trump versus Kim back-and-forth of barbs, threats and insults, it's quite likely most of the world had never heard the word 'dotard'.

Threats of war, including that of the nuclear variety, were liberally issued — by Trump on Twitter, television and public meetings and by Kim via State-owned media — and things looked like getting a whole lot worse before getting better.

 Inter-Korea Summit: Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-ins meet a positive step, but peace on peninsula still far off; heres why

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Friday. AP

So just where does the historical 27 April summit fit into all of this?

That there was a summit is the source of a little surprise given the acrimony of the past year; rather, it was the unexpected warmth exuded by both sides that left most observers and commentators bewildered, albeit in a good way.

But we'll get to that second point shortly. "Much of the change in tone from confrontation to engagement has been driven by the two Korean leaders, however, starting with Kim’s New Year’s address, in which he said he was open to reducing tensions with South Korea and was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics," noted Reuters.

The aforementioned Seoul Winter Olympics saw not just the presence of a high-level North Korean delegation, but also a combined North-South women's ice hockey team and perhaps most symbolic, the opening ceremony march-past of contingents from both countries under one flag.

And then there the K-pop concert — attended by Kim — in Pyongyang that featured a handful of South Korea's top artistes/acts. Around the same time, former CIA director (and now Trump's Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo held a secret meeting with Kim. So clearly, the writing was on the wall for a shift in isolated Pyongyang's relations with the world.

The picture painted by the media — bear in mind there was all sorts of chatter about the sort of restrictions that had been placed on what journalists could and could not report — about the meeting couldn't have been more at odds with the way Kim has viewed his neighbour over the years. And yet, it seemingly happened.

The Supreme Leader of North Korea looked like a child on his first trip to Disneyland, while Moon looked like an archetypal avuncular figure showing the youngster around. The global media largely lapped it up, with the press from both Koreas hailing the summit, their Japanese counterparts doing much the same, the Chinese State media offering its own praise and the US media noting the positive development but exercising caution.

There are two aspects to this inter-Korea Summit (as it's been dubbed) that need to be considered closely in order to be able to extrapolate how it's all going to pan out:

What brought this about?

It's neither Kim, nor Moon (and to some extent, Park) with whom this section must begin. For all his nonsensical rhetoric, erratic behaviour and even worse conduct on social media — it remains something of a mystery that his aides haven't changed his password and locked him out of Twitter, Trump should be recognised as the architect of this apparent rapprochement. A controversial claim perhaps, considering he wasn't the one crossing the DMZ or even involved in the summit. His braggadocious claims to credit for the success of the summit notwithstanding, it remains a fact that North Korea has been on his mind for a long time (and he's made the world aware of that).

During the course of his presidential campaign, if there was one topic — apart from how flawed the Iran-P5 nuclear deal was, how Obamacare had ruined the country, how crooked Hillary Clinton was and how he would wipe out Islamic State — that Trump kept harping on, it was North Korea.

The country took up such real estate in Trump's thinking that even after his election, Pyongyang was constantly on his mind. Naturally, North Korea and Kim found itself in the cross hairs of a large percentage of Trump's tweets and public pronouncements.

In fact, it was his August 2017 statement that North Korean threats would be met with 'fire and fury' that provided the title for Michael Wolff's book about the Trump administration. But it wasn't only one way: In the joint statement signed with Narendra Modi in June last year, North Korea — a country that has yet to pose the shadow of a threat to India — found a mention too.

It can be argued that it was Trump's persistence on denuclearising Pyongyang and refusal to blink in the face of Kim's remarks that moved the issue along and got other countries on board with the idea of engaging with North Korea.

If the US was the iron fist in getting things done, it can equally be argued that South Korea was the velvet glove. Certainly neither Park nor Moon shied from condemning North Korea's belligerence, but neither were particularly harsh either, with Moon, in particular, keenly seeking dialogue with his neighbours.

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in cross the military demarcation line to the South side at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone. AP

If Kim's New Year's address was the turning point, then Friday's summit was quite clearly the exclamation point on inter-Korean relations.

Amidst all this newfound bonhomie, there's been a fair bit of speculation over time that North Korea's resources are running dangerously low, ergo, compelling Kim to seek a rapprochement of sorts — in order to avoid a civil uprising or even a coup.

Most recently, Chinese scientists offered that last year's nuclear test may have destroyed the testing site at Punggye-ri — under a mountain near China's border — that has been leaking radiation ever since. It is also believed that this may have been why Kim was so willing to agree to denuclearise.

The fourth factor that needs to also be considered is the role of China in all this. China — North Korea's most important trading partner and main source of food and energy — has been North Korea's biggest supporter on the international stage as well as acutely aware that the country acts as a buffer between itself and the US troops stationed in South Korea. It's also not entirely unimaginable that Beijing has used this leverage to unleash Pyongyang on its neighbours whenever there were any rumblings against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. While reportage about any new instructions being issued to Kim by the Chinese leadership are sparse, it's equally not entirely unimaginable that Beijing instructed Pyongyang to scale down the rhetoric and seek rapprochement.

Where do we go from here?

For Trump, this will — and has already been — an opportunity to stake claim to the legacy of being the US president to end the last of the Cold War relics. If Ronald 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall' Reagan's legacy was to put an end to the Soviet Union, George HW Bush's was to make peace with Vietnam, Barack Obama's was to end hostilities with Cuba and now, the 45th President of the United States can claim North Korea.

But for Trump, it is important to now take a step back and allow the Koreas to figure out how to turn this landmark meeting into a lasting peace. His chest-thumping and patting of own back will likely irritate Pyongyang, Seoul and Beijing. Speaking of Beijing, China too must now seek to wean North Korea off its handouts and allow it to build relations with other countries and return from the wilderness to the international fold.

For North and South Korea, the trickiest part will be to outline and agree upon tangible methods and timelines by which to achieve some of the rather open-ended goals laid out in the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula issued on Friday. As it stands, South Korea has already put an end to the propaganda messages broadcast along the border with North Korea.

Kim, on his part, has promised to give up his nuclear weapons if the US commits to a formal end to the Korean War and a pledges not to attack. ""If we maintain frequent meetings and build trust with the United States and receive promises for an end to the war and a nonaggression treaty, then why would we need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons and suffer?" the North Korean leader was quoted as saying.

However, the US is not willing to take things on face value until the Trump administration sees change on the ground: Probably the most pragmatic way to approach matters at the moment.

The Panmunjeom Declaration contains phrases stating that both parties "will make joint efforts to alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula" and that they "continued the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula". Joint statements rarely go into copious details about the exact steps parties intend to take. However, in this situation, global confidence in Kim's intentions will be built if both parties are able to agree on steps and timelines swiftly and go public with them.

Kim's announcement — through South Korean channels — that he will shut his nuclear weapons test site by May is a positive and tangible step. But the world will need more such reassurances to truly believe that Kim has turned the corner.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2018 21:08:25 IST

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