No time to waste
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korean State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un has decided to visit Seoul before the end of this year. The joint declaration from Pyongyang announced on Sept. 19, 2018, said he would make the visit “in the near future.” In a luncheon that day, Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of the Korean Peninsula Forum, asked Kim if he could actually make the visit to Seoul. “President Moon [Jae-in] is making an earnest request, but half of our officials are protesting,” Kim replied. After a moment of thinking, “I will visit before the end of this year.”
In another meeting, Kim said humbly, “I have not done many things to deserve a welcome in the South.” He also said, “It is okay for the Taegukgi demonstrators to hold some rallies,” referring to anti-North, conservative protesters.
The two Koreas fought a war. The sentiments of the anti-North protesters indicate that Kim is still the leader of a monstrous North Korean regime. Many believe that it will be hard for Kim to visit the South due to the fierce protests by the Taegukgi demonstrators. And yet, he mentioned the possibility first and made public a surprising decision to visit Seoul.
Taegukgi protesters are not merely a glimpse at the split in our community, but a healthy asset that demonstrates the diversity of our society. Although they are extreme conservatives, they act as guardians of national security. If the Moon administration identifies their role calmly, it can have dialogue with the conservative opposition parties. In a country divided by a war, it is unrealistic to say that inter-Korean issues will be resolved without talking to opposition parties and the conservatives.
The North offered Moon an opportunity to give a speech before 150,000 residents of Pyongyang. Now, it is Kim’s turn. If he pledges to “denuclearize” before conservative opposition lawmakers at the National Assembly, the effect is beyond our imagination. And yet, the Liberty Korea Party’s former Chairman Hong Joon-pyo criticized the recent inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang as “fake peace.” Rep. Kim Jin-tae of the same party said Moon gave up territory in return for gifts of pine mushrooms.
The conservative opposition parties will probably not cooperate to pass the budgets necessary for inter-Korean economic projects after denuclearization. Therefore the Moon administration, although it does not want to, needs to reach out to the opposition, communicate and meet with them and reflect their demands in its policies.
Kim must also be considerate of Moon and Trump. Moon, who was once criticized as “the chief spokesman of the North,” will be hindered by the split in the South. If Moon becomes powerless, Kim will also face heavy blows. Before it is too late, he must give a signal to the international community that the North has changed by making some tangible actions toward denuclearization. Only then, will the conservative opposition parties in the South open up and the conflict in the South be resolved.
The golden combination of Moon and Trump will remain only for a limited time period. If Trump, who said he has fallen in love with Kim, fails to secure accomplishments in denuclearization and loses the Nov. 6 mid-term election, the North-U.S. negotiations will become a deflated balloon.
Kim’s term is indefinite, but the situations are different for the presidents of the South and the United States. Kim’s late father Kim Jong-il sent Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-rok, his second highest military official, to Washington as his special envoy on Oct. 9, 2000 to deliver a letter to then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to invite him to Pyongyang. But Clinton had to visit the Middle East, not Pyongyang, as Israel attacked the Palestinians, just before the end of his term, with the next election scheduled for Nov. 7, 2000. Clinton was very sad that he did not have enough time. Wendy Sherman, who was the North Korea policy coordinator for the Clinton administration, said history would have been different if Kim Jong-il sent Jo to Washington just one month earlier, according to “Peacemaker” by Lim Dong-won. North Korean leader Kim must not repeat the mistake of his father.
Less than a month is left before America’s mid-term elections. If Kim loses the golden time, Trump and Moon will lose their power to stop the attacks of the hawks in the United States and Taegukgi protesters in the South. A senior North Korean official said it is regretful that the conservative opposition parties did not join Moon’s trip to Pyongyang, but that is inappropriate. If the North had taken some serious actions after the North-U.S. summit in Singapore in June, the situation would have been different.
We want to see Kim walking on the streets of Gwanghwamun, but the possibility is unclear. Although most South Korean people want Kim to make a reciprocal visit, they are negative about a declaration that ends the Korean War without the North’s promise to denuclearize.
“What will I gain by using deception or buying more time in this situation?” Kim told Moon, and we hope he was speaking honestly. The starting point of resolving the split in the South, symbolized by the Taegukgi protesters, is Kim’s quick and bold decision to truly denuclearize.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 8, Page 31