SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - People often say that President Moon Jae-in is a good man, but instantly add that he is “not necessarily a strong or capable leader, though.” The constantly smiling president demonstrated his affable character on his two-night, three-day visit to North Korea last week, during which he signed a broadly worded peace communique with North Korean chief Kim Jong Un and produced a fairly detailed agreement on reducing military tension in the Demilitarised Zone.
Doubtless, Moon was immersed in the warmest amity the North Koreans have ever shown to a visiting South Korean head of state. He achieved the top item on his bucket list by climbing Paektusan, the revered birthplace of the Korean nation, after addressing a crowd of 150,000 Pyongyang citizens in a packed stadium in the capital city, and mingling with them with endless handshakes and deep bows.
The 65-year-old president spent 17 hours with his host, Kim, 35, out of the 56 hours he stayed in the North, and pulled off something truly unprecedented: Kim’s surprise announcement that he would visit Seoul “in the near future.” Blue House officials interpreted this to mean before the end of the year.
Moon must already have the Nobel Peace Prize in his sights for this year or next, possibly hoping to share it with Kim Jong Un in the fashion of Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 and Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978. Or he may be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Kim Dae Jung, who attained the honour in 2000 a few months after he visited Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, mentioned their desire to visit Seoul in conversations with Moon and the other visitors. When the South’s first lady, Kim Jung Sook -- who is, like Ri, a trained vocalist -- suggested that the two sing a song together during a banquet, the hostess declined but said, “I’ll sing when I go to Seoul.”
Moon’s aides reported that Kim Jong Un privately asked them how the “Taegeukgi groups” would react if he were to appear on the streets of Seoul, referring to radical conservative organisations here whose members wave the national flag at their rallies. It is not just the North Korean leader, but many South Koreans too, who would like to know the answer.
No one can confidently predict what will happen here when the young North Korean leader sets foot on Southern soil -- the same land that his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, invaded with superior forces 68 years ago. Many people believe Kim Jong Un was behind the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan warship and the 2011 bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island when he was preparing to take over power from his dying father, Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Un has improved his image in South Korea and elsewhere, thanks to the three summits with Moon this year and his meeting with President Trump in Singapore in June. Somehow, Kim has shed the image of a devilish character who may have murdered his uncle and his half-brother and built a new one -- that of a man capable of dealing flexibly with opponents through candid conversations and goodwill gestures.
If North Korean leaders and President Moon’s aides are concerned about the Taegeukgi-waving demonstrators in the South, there will also be a sizeable number of welcoming crowds here -- notably members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, who have long hoped to see warmer relations with the North. Kim Jong Un will either be embarrassed or encouraged to see the Korean National Police take pains to keep the factions on the left and right away from each other as he moves about in the Southern capital city.
The feared disorder on Seoul’s streets is an important matter that authorities both in Seoul and Pyongyang need to consider when deciding the details of Kim’s visit. Yet there is an even more important variable to consider -- one that will make or break the ultimate event in inter-Korean diplomacy. That is the progress of denuclearisation negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Optimists foresee a second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the results of which may even go beyond the North’s commitments in the latest inter-Korean summit talks -- that is, the dismantling of the old nuclear arms development facilities in Yongbyon and of the long-range missile testing site in Tongchang-ri. However, Kim will also be calculating the effects of a fast thaw with the South, including the effects of his Seoul visit, at the nuclear bargaining table with Washington.
One parallel line of diplomacy calls for the declaration of an end to the Korean War, involving the two Koreas and the United States. Kim’s visit to Seoul will establish favourable conditions for the international manifesto, which will naturally lead to negotiations for a peace treaty between the three states.
President Moon and his aides must now carefully review the meaning of Kim Jong Un’s friendliness in Pyongyang last week. The North Korean leader plainly told Moon that his country needs help from the South as it shifts its national orientation from nuclear development to economic advancement. When we saw the president after his arrival back in Seoul, we saw that he was making an effort to trust his hosts in Pyongyang and believe what they wanted him to believe.
Moon has a task that is of paramount importance with regard to our internal situation. Before he plays host to Kim Jong Un, the president needs to establish peace in domestic politics. An end to the political war should be declared before the president and Kim discuss an end to hostilities between the two Koreas. That declaration should be a real, sincere and faithful deed ending all measures that are part of political vendettas.
Keeping two former presidents in jail and prosecuting three immediate former heads of the state intelligence apparatus for an assortment of offences other than treason suggests that we do not have a stable government that can confidently take on a most dangerous regime, one that happens to be the latest claimant of nuclear power.
If the nation is to steer through the current hardships facing the economy and the security environment, something like a grand amnesty for all political cases is recommended. Moon’s legal officers, who have shown such fervour and perseverance in punishing the old powers, must conclude all the retaliatory cases expeditiously once the president decides to make a fresh start with internal peace and reconciliation. Here is the chance for President Moon to prove that he truly is a good, capable and strong statesman.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald.
The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.