Friday, September 21, 2018

South Korea Visit Plan Shows Kim Ready to Admit Development Gap
By Zhang Yun
Global Times
2018/9/20 19:43:40

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un jointly signed a joint declaration on the second day of Moon's visit to North Korea. They held a joint press conference that revealed several unprecedented commitments from Pyongyang. The most significant one is Kim's promise to visit Seoul this year. This would be the first time a top North Korean leader will visit South Korea. This has three historic implications.

First, the decision reflects Kim's courage and determination to allow North Korean people to see the development gap between the North and South. The possible effect on the North Korean public of getting to know the economic gap has been a long-standing concern for the North Korean leader. With full video coverage of Kim's Seoul visit, North Koreans will witness directly the stunning prosperity of South Korea. In other words, North Korean leadership is ready to recognize the lag in development and will embark on the path to reform and opening-up.

It was reported that Kim apologized to Moon for the less than adequate hospitality due to resource constraints in comparison with developed countries. The public acknowledgement of backwardness is seen as a significant signal to North Korean people that it is time to change the country's focus from military build-up to economic development.

Second, Kim's visit to Seoul would definitely lead to further specific measures compared with this summit. The Pyongyang joint declaration includes an agreement by North Korea to permanently dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and a promise to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility depending on corresponding measures by the US. The promise to permanently shut the missile engine test site was made without a US promise, which signals North Korea's intent of showing that inter-Korean dynamics would have their own life.

This gesture not only provided Moon strong support for his domestic audience, but also created a favorable atmosphere for Kim's upcoming visit to South Korea. At their meeting, Kim praised Moon for his efforts at facilitating the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, which highlighted the South Korean president's role as an inevitable mediator.

This political message is helpful for Moon as he has been grilled by conservative skeptics for the slow progress on denuclearization after the Singapore summit. The Moon government is arguing that the lack of progress is a clear evidence of the necessity of a change in approach, which means that denuclearization and lifting sanctions must go hand-in-hand.

Third, Kim's promise to visit South Korea is lending an incentive and opportunity for US President Donald Trump to hold a second US-North Korea summit. Like President Moon, Trump has been criticized by hawkish skeptics as naïve man for holding a meeting with Kim in Singapore without conditions. They attacked Trump for being purportedly cheated by North Korea as nothing has changed after the talks. Kim understands it well and has worked hard to provide justification for Trump to hold a second summit.

After the Singapore summit, North Korea has shown several good gestures, including the demolition of one nuclear test site and dismantling of a missile launch facility. The return of the remains of US soldiers from the Korean War (1950-53) and the release of American citizens were interpreted by Trump as unilateral compromises made by North Korea to silent his domestic critics. The Kim-Moon summit in Pyongyang was hailed by Trump immediately, which could be a convincing prelude for his second meeting with Kim.

In the past decades, the central question on the Korean Peninsula issue has been whether North Korea is inclined to reforms. But now the focus would be more on how the US and President Trump could grasp this historic opportunity to make change happen earlier and smoother by skillfully navigating US domestic politics.

The author is associate professor of National Niigata University Japan and senior fellow, Institute of Advanced Area Studies and Global Governance, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China.

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