On Friday, the leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, will meet at the truce village of Panmunjom for a historic summit that many Koreans believe could end the war and state of belligerence that has plagued both sides of the Korean Peninsula since the late 1940s.
Kim’s symbolic crossing of the border into the South could also pave the way for another precedent-shattering event: the planned summit in early June between Kim Jong-un and President Trump. If all goes well in the consecutive summits, the talks could end the threat of war—nuclear war—between North Korea and the United States and usher in a new era of peace in Northeast Asia.
To Korea hands who have seen tensions rise and fall over the years, the upcoming summits are a remarkable sign of progress toward ending a North Korean nuclear and missile program that started in the late 1980s to create a deterrent against the United States and succeeded in 2017 beyond anyone’s dreams in Pyongyang or Washington.
“Last year, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was the most tense, the most negative, I’d ever seen, so these are good, important, impressive steps,” Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador who has been to North Korea on trouble-shooting missions eight times, told The Nation. “The president took a gamble, but it’s a risk worth taking.”
Richardson, who was interviewed during an arms-control conference in Washington, said he was unsure whether the Kim regime would eventually give up all of its weapons.
“Possible, not probable,” he said. But “they will restrict them, curb their use, and put a freeze on missiles and nuclear weapons. Any kind of progress that defuses the military confrontation is worth the summit.” Like many analysts, he gave credit for the thaw to Moon Jae-in and his Olympic diplomacy. “The reason for the change, in my judgment, is the president of South Korea.”
David Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of USC’s Korean Studies Institute, expressed amazement at the turn of events.
“If I had said in December, at the height of the worries about a ‘bloody nose’ strike and all that, that within four months we would not only be having summits between North and South Korea, China and the US, but that Kim would have publicly said he doesn’t need to test and publicly floating the idea of denuclearization—well, there’s no possible way people would have taken it seriously,” he told The Nation.
The global interest in the meetings at Panmunjom—which will be televised live to the world via the South Korean government’s summit internet portal—increased over the past week as North Korea, in its preparatory meetings with Moon’s government, made several critical decisions and concessions designed to enhance the atmosphere for his upcoming talks with Moon and then Trump.