The impending summit between the leaders of North and South Korea is so meticulously scripted as to make the two men appear like actors in a drama for which they’ve memorised the lines.
All that’s not known is just what Moon Jae-in, president of South Korea, will say to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un when they sit down at Peace House on Friday. They are to meet on the south side of the Joint Security Area in the “truce village” of Panmunjom, 35 miles north of Seoul, where the Korean War armistice was signed in July 1953.
Mr Moon, however, has been “studying” his words so diligently, says an aide, that it appears he’s got them carefully memorised. The only real question is how both leaders have crafted their remarks, including a final joint statement with emphasis on “denuclearisation” and North Korea’s pledge to suspend its nuclear and long-range missile tests.
No one really expects Mr Kim to comply right away. Rather, the statement is expected to be a masterpiece of diplomatic double-talk that underlines the North Korean leader’s need to focus on his country’s decrepit economy while demanding concessions from the US and South Korea.
“I expect he will try to talk about US bases and arms reduction instead of denuclearisation,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian author and commentator on North Korea. “You cannot get good final results.”
However, in the face of such pessimism, the North Korean leader is expected to appear compliant and cooperative enough to be sure US President Donald Trump will still want to meet him in a few weeks from now.
So upbeat is the mood in Seoul that it seems out of the question that Mr Moon and Mr Kim, whatever they are thinking, would appear anything but superficially accommodating to each other. Nonetheless, the South Korean leader’s closest advisers insist he and Mr Trump think alike on the nuclear issue – that they will demand nothing less than CVID – complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement – an acronym that may be open to somewhat varying definitions contingent on timing and “security guarantees” offered by the US and South Korea.
Aside from denuclearisation, the North and South Korean leaders may also hint at the need for a “peace treaty” to replace the Korean War armistice. “We know sanctions have begun to bite,” said Kim Taehwan, a professor of diplomacy, at a panel discussion set up in Seoul to advance the government’s quest for dialogue and reconciliation. “He has to turn in another direction. It’s very important to declare an ending of the war.”
However, while engaging in word games, optics and imagery count for just as much. That was clear from the rehearsal in which half a dozen senior South Korean officials had to go through the whole show just to be sure nothing goes wrong. The only missing characters were the principals, whose parts were played by professional actors.
The rehearsal opened at the critical moment Mr Kim is to step across the line that’s divided North from South Korea for more than six decades – a step that will mark the first time a North Korean leader has visited the South.
“First we checked how President Moon will greet Chairman Kim, where they will stand,” said Mr Moon’s spokesman. Next, a military band opened up and elite South Korean troops stood in formation, as they will do as Mr Kim “inspects” them with Mr Moon at his side.
Every gesture will assume historic significance, at least for Koreans. At the rehearsal, the South Korean officials greeted the actor playing Kim Jong-un and accompanied him in a ceremony that Korea’s television channels will be covering live.
“Chairman Kim is scheduled to sign the guestbook prepared on the first floor of Peace House,” said Im Jong-seok, chairman of the summit preparation committee. “They will have a chat in the reception room before moving to the conference room on the second floor to start the inter-Korean summit.”
They will lunch separately, even take “rest time,” added Mr Im, before the show goes on with the planting of a pine tree – said to have dated as a seedling from 1953, the year that the Korean War ended.
The signatures of both leaders will be etched in stone on a plaque beneath the tree with the words, in Korean, “Peace and Prosperity Are Planted”.
If the two disagree on anything, that’s not going to be in the script. Rather, said Mr Im, they “are likely to engage in friendly conversation as they walk together to the footbridge where stands a signpost of the Military Demarcation Line”. That stroll is to “signify the arrival of peace on the Korean Peninsula and the era of cooperation and prosperity” – in accordance with the slogan of the summit, “Peace, a New Start”.
The meeting will continue with what’s described as “a lavish dinner”, also in Peace House during which they will watch a video, “A New Spring Enjoyed Together”.
After all that, could anything go wrong? “North Korea wants to be a normal state to make people happy,” said Moon Chung-in, one of the president’s top advisers. “We should see a ray of hope.”
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