By Jenna Gibson
There’s no question the world’s attention will be on the Korean peninsula this week as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un meet at the DMZ on Friday. And that’s exactly what those two leaders want. In fact, the entire meeting will be televised, so interested people all over the world can see exactly what happens when Kim and Moon sit down together.
The meeting’s location is historic – for the first time, a North Korean leader will travel to the DMZ to meet with his Southern counterpart, rather than insisting on a meeting in Pyongyang. This is being hailed as a sign of sincerity and compromise on the part of the North Koreans. But the location is not just historic, it is practically made for TV. With thousands of landmines for miles around, in a place that has become a symbol of the peninsula’s division, the two leaders will enter one of Panmunjeom’s iconic bright blue buildings and sit down to chat for the first time. And while the two sides will certainly come to the table with major differences, they seem to be on the same page when it comes to the importance of showing everything to the world – both sides spent their Tuesday running through a rehearsal of the summit, even going so far as to hold the rehearsal at the exact same time of the day “because sunlight has to be taken into consideration for the broadcasting of the meeting.”
For President Moon in particular, generating positive domestic and international buzz about this meeting is a priority. In the leadup to the summit, the South Korean government launched a website in nine languages to communicate to international audiences what President Moon hopes to accomplish with his engagement strategy. The South Korean government has been promoting their vision extensively on Twitter – one particularly enthusiastic message from Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha declared “Twitter followers across the world! We want to let you know history is being made on the Korean Peninsula. The top leaders of the two sides will meet for an lnter-Korean Summit on April 27. Cheer us on, and stay tuned!”
Clearly for Moon, the summit is an integral part of his foreign policy strategy. But the emphasis on international messaging suggests that the meeting itself is not enough. Moon also wants it to be seen – and he wants to be in the center of it all. Moon has played his cards perfectly so far – walking the tightrope between taking too much credit and seeming arrogant, or risking stepping on Trump’s toes – and fading too far into the background. He has very publicly given Trump credit for giving him an opening for diplomacy, and sent high-level officials to immediately convey the invitation from Kim Jong-un to Trump for a summit meeting. He is the conductor of the diplomatic orchestra – completely essential but taking little credit, until the final bow.
If he has made any mistake, it has been to raise expectations for this and the Trump-Kim summit above what is practical in the short term. Even in the wildest scenario, a successful summit doesn’t mean the peninsula will change overnight. And even if major promises are made, it is reasonable to be skeptical about how long North Korea will keep their word, or how much they will follow the letter rather than the spirit of any agreements.
All of this makes sense for Moon – but why would Kim Jong-un agree to televise the summit? What does he gain by opening himself up to the scrutiny of public and pundits all over the world, many of whom are openly skeptical about his intentions? Does this mean that Kim is completely sincere, and is ready to prove it on tape? Possibly, but not necessarily. Kim will likely be wary of making concrete promises, and will likely equivocate on some of the key issues, including denuclearization. He will avoid saying anything on tape that he can later be held to. And he may also be carefully watching for any words from the South Korean side that he can twist to show insincerity and use as an excuse to break deals later on.
At the same time, Kim does also want to get credit for having agreed to the meeting and for being open to mending the openly hostile and even dangerous situation on the peninsula over the last year or so. Despite what North Korea’s “Hermit Kingdom” stereotype may imply, the Kim regime actually does care about how it is viewed abroad, and about its legitimacy in the international community. Take the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry Report, in which Michael Kirby and his team laid out the case for why the North Korean regime should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. After the release of this report, North Korea’s UN team leapt into action, doing everything possible to discredit the report and Kirby, and to deny the accusations as publicly as possible. If Kim were truly ruling over a hermit kingdom, he wouldn’t care what others thought about the way he treated his people.
It’s unclear how televising of the summit will affect the ultimate outcome of talks between North Korea and South Korea, or eventual talks with the United States. But it does ensure that both sides will be even more careful with their words and actions than they may have been behind closed doors. The good thing is, for the time being, both North and South have plenty of incentives to make this meeting go smoothly. Neither wants to be the one to spoil the Korean spring – particularly with the cameras on.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Eva Rinaldi’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.