On May 5, clocks across North Korea were adjusted by 30 minutes to align with the time zone in South Korea, for the first time since 2015. This small but practical step was indicative of how the two Koreas may move towards rapprochement between neighbors and denuclearization in the peninsula. But as anticipation builds ahead of the upcoming meeting between Pyongyang’s head and President Trump, opinions are divided on whether North Korea’s apparent volte-face on its nuclear strategy can be trusted.
For most South Koreans, the recent visit of Kim Jong Un to their country was the first time they saw the man behind the forbidding persona. Smiles, hugs and even some witty repartee humanized the leader upon whom peace in the Korean peninsula and possibly the rest of the world depends. The sudden prominence he has allowed two women, sister Kim Yo Jong and wife, Ri Sol Ju, has also got people guessing. Yo Jong dominated television screens at the Seoul winter Olympics in February and has become the most prominent political figure after her brother. Former singing star Sol Ju recently received the official title of ‘First Lady’ and made a debut solo public appearance at a ballet performance. Speculation abounds on whether this is another clever ploy to soften the leader’s image or a true reflection of a changing vision.
The historic summit in South Korea on April 27th created much-needed hope after the recent fears of a nuclear crisis. The reprieve from the nuclear button that was looming large for the first time since the Cold War saw hope and optimism all over the world. President Moon’s approval ratings in his country and his reputation as a savvy diplomat internationally soared deservedly. Given the close cultural affiliation and shared history, most observers hope that he is a better judge of the motivations and future actions of his counterpart across the border than Western policymakers. However, the summit’s declaration was unclear on what precisely ‘denuclearization’ will entail, and what specific steps will be taken to achieve it. Much still hinges on the summit with the US leader that is expected to take place a week from now. But let’s not put all of our attention on that historic event. Remember, of course, that the two Korea’s have technically been at war for 50 years. Just because President Trump may sit at the table with Kim Jong Un, we should not downplay the historical significance of a peace agreement at the heart of the tension—concerning the two nations that are only separated by a demilitarized zone and a long-standing border. As the talks continue, Kim Jong Un will face tougher questions than on the action steps towards denuclearization, as well as a head of state who will be less careful and self-effacing than South Korea’s Moon.
It is tempting to believe that President Moon’s friendly diplomacy and President Trump’s no-nonsense approach have worked. Given what’s at stake, however, a healthy degree of skepticism and a hard look beyond surface diplomacy is warranted. Those calling for a Nobel for Trump will do well to hold off for a bit.