Roh’s wishes reduxWhen South Korean President Moon Jae-in received an invitation to meet from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un through his younger sister, who attended the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony as a special envoy, he said talk of an inter-Korean summit at the time was like “looking for hot water around the well.” He was referring to poor timing as Pyongyang and Washington ties were so chilly that people were talking of war. To presidential aides preparing for an inter-Korean summit in April, he advised extra caution “as if dealing with a glass dish.”
While dropping in on a preparatory committee meeting for the summit talks between the two Koreas on Wednesday, he told the members to be “bold” in the arrangements as the two Koreas and the United States have a “clear goal and vision” for the two upcoming summit meetings between Seoul and Pyongyang and Pyongyang and Washington. Moon sounds as if he is aiming for an ambitious permanent solution to the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, when he sits across from Kim on the southern side of the Panmunjom truce village next month, especially if Pyongyang and Washington can discuss denuclearization and normalization of diplomatic ties in the following meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in May.
Let’s push back the clock to Sept. 7, 2007. Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush addressed a press conference after a tete-a-tete on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit conference in Sydney, Australia. Roh was due to meet then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007. The duo delivered an odd exchange in front of the cameras in spite of an extraordinary agenda in the making.
Bush said Washington would be ready to sign a new security arrangement for the Korean Peninsula if North Korea fully disclosed and got rid of its nuclear weapons program.
Roh turned to his U.S. counterpart, apparently baffled by what was relayed through the interpreter: “I might be wrong. I think I did not hear President Bush mention a declaration to end the Korea War just now. Did you say so, President Bush?” Bush answered, “It’s up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we are able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War.”
Roh pressed on: “I believe that they are the same thing, Mr. President. If you could be a little bit clearer.” By this time Bush ran out of patience and snapped, “I can’t make it any more clear … We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end — will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and weapons.” He quickly wrapped up the press conference.
The U.S. media highlighted the “awkward” sparring at the press conference, which are usually ceremonially polite. The White House and Blue House downplayed the hostile tone, saying there had been a misunderstanding in the translation. But the scene clearly underscored the fundamental differences on North Korean affairs between Seoul and Washington. Roh wished a formal declaration of an end to the war on the Korean Peninsula while Bush did not wish to move onto any development unless he was assured that Pyongyang has fully dismantled its nuclear weapons program. After the Oct. 4 summit, the two Koreas agreed to work towards a permanent peace structure replacing the truce and have three or four-party summit talks to declare an end of the Korean War. Their statement did not mention North Korea’s denuclearization commitment or plan.
Moon has revived Roh’s last wishes by arranging head-to-head summits. “We are pursuing a drive that had not been coordinated with Washington,” one Blue House official said. “We are hanging hopes on the top-down leadership nature of Trump and Kim.” Another official said, “We must not bear prejudice against Pyongyang. There could be a sea change in the Northeast Asian region” to suggest Seoul may press to draw concessions from Pyongyang on a continued American military presence in the Korean Peninsula while persuading Washington to agree in return for its cooperation to help in reining in the spread of Chinese influence.
Pyongyang remains mum on summit plans with Washington. From what we heard from Chung Eui-yong, chief of the National Security Office, who acted as a middleman between Kim and Trump, Kim’s rhetoric on “denuclearization commitment” could be a ceremonial overture. “There is no change to the wishes of our earlier generation [Kim’s father Kim Jong-il] on denuclearization commitment … There is no need of possessing nuclear if the military threat is removed and the security of the regime is guaranteed,” according to Chung’s relaying of Kim’s remarks. Chung Dong-young, a unification minister who met Kim Jong-il as Roh’s special envoy in June 2005, delivered the same message from the North Korean leader upon returning. Yet North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in September 2006. What Pyongyang means by “removal of the military threat” refers to the withdrawal of American troops plus the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Under the armistice treaty signed in 1953, the war status will end when all foreign soldiers leave the peninsula.
“We must not see a deal ending through North Korea’s freeze on its nuclear weapons programs or changes to the U.S. armed forces in South Korea,” said Kim Hee-sang, former national security adviser to Roh and chairman of the Korea Institute of National Security Affairs. Withdrawal of American forces from the Korean Peninsula is a sensitive issue at a time when China and Russia are led by expansionist leaders.
“North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is a growing malignant tumor in our body. Hasty surgery could be fatal. It is more realistic to try to contain it to extend life,” said a senior diplomat who had been engaged denuclearization talks under Roh administration. That could be the wisest route.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 23, Page 28.
The author is a foreign policy and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.