PYEONGCHANG – After decades of bloodshed and strife, including a runup to the Olympic Games that saw the rival Koreas lurching toward war amid a near-constant barrage of North Korean missile and nuke tests, it’s such a ludicrous concept at first glance that many refuse to even consider it.
Not South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, a true believer in the power of Koreans talking to Koreans when it comes to solving the woes that have beset the Korean Peninsula since it was divided in 1945.
Moon has always harboured dreams of rapprochement, even as the missiles flew during his first months in office and he was forced to take a hard line during a deepening standoff featuring the South, his American ally and his northern neighbours.
Now, with an invitation to meet the North’s dictator in Pyongyang, personally delivered on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Olympics by that dictator’s sister during the first-ever peacetime visit to the South by a member of the North Korean ruling family, Moon may be on the brink of a legacy-defining moment. If he’s not actually forging peace, he’s at least putting himself in a position to make a serious assault on the notion.
“Dizzying” is how one South Korean newspaper described the diplomatic typhoon swirling over the Korean Peninsula, with all the big players seemingly wanting different things and Moon, at times, the only calm in the storm.
The son of North Korean refugees and a leading advocate of a previous liberal government’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, Moon has spent his career — a lifetime, really — waiting for this chance. The question now is whether he can persuade the North Koreans, his own people and Washington to back his play.
Of the three, the North Koreans might be the easiest sell.
Moon has not yet formally accepted the invite, and Washington would probably rather he not visit Pyongyang until the North puts its nukes on the negotiating table. Many South Koreans, meanwhile, who have been threatened with war for decades and saw 50 of their citizens killed in attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010, will be deeply wary of any deal that does not provide real security.
Moon knows the risks. He has taken a cautious approach to the invitation thus far, but the rivals’ lightning-quick swing from antagonism to seeming affection could be a chance too tempting to pass up.
The first liberal president in a decade, Moon has repeatedly said since his election in May that he’d be willing to visit Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jong Un if that would help solve the North’s headlong pursuit of a nuclear arsenal that can target the US mainland.
Moon has benefited from the rock star-like reception that Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, has received here. Her picture, often with a bemused half-smile, has been splashed across newspapers. Seemingly every aspect of her appearance and demeanour has been examined with microscopic detail on TV.
Her visit may “open the gates wide” for talks between the Koreas and contribute to regional peace, according to an editorial in the liberal Kyunghyang Sinmun newspaper.
The conservative Dong-A Ilbo warned that South Korea may lose the trust of the United States and Japan as it courts North Korea for talks, and that the North, knowing that Seoul and Washington plan to resume war games in March, “may deploy a strategy of using the Moon Jae-in government as a shield from the United States.”
“The current state of the Korean Peninsula is so dizzying because South Korea, North Korea and the United States are each thinking too differently,” the newspaper said.
The Associated Press