Moon Jae-in’s North Korea diplomacy efforts bring hope
MYEONGPA-RI, South Korea The thump-thump-thump of mortar rounds in the distance came in jarring succession on a recent day in the northernmost village on South Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone.
Although it was only the sound of a nearby South Korean military live-fire practice range, the rounds and a few artillery blasts were stark reminders for some 300 residents of Myeongpa-ri of the high stakes in talks between North and South.
“People here want to see this diplomacy work,” said village chief Chang Sok-gwan.
As a jeep full of soldiers in camouflage rumbled by, he said South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s “intentions are right” in pushing for dialogue with the North’s Kim Jong-un.
Mr. Chang’s sentiment is representative of hopes across South Korea, even as anxiety mounts ahead of what will be the first meeting between leaders from North and South in more than a decade when Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim come together for a summit on April 27.
Without question, Mr. Moon has brought a wave of optimism to the South after the country’s successful hosting of the Winter Olympics. Many saw it as an epic achievement a year after a political meltdown that culminated in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
But the issue of diplomacy with North Korea, as well as the prospect of a direct meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, remain sensitive and divisive beneath the surface in Seoul.
Conservatives and older citizens people who remember the Korean War and the decades of duplicitous North Korean posturing that has resulted in a nuclear-armed Pyongyang say Mr. Moon is pandering to a regime that simply cannot be trusted.
“We’re going to be dragged along by the North Koreans,” Seoul resident Jang Yoon-mi, 60, told The Washington Times. “Polls might say 70 percent of South Koreans have a positive view of diplomatic developments, but I think the polls are wrong. Even the younger generation here believes the result of the upcoming Moon-Kim summit won’t be positive.”
But even after years of hostile rhetoric and threats from Mr. Kim, many young people in Seoul say the current situation is better than the prospect of war. They express hope that diplomacy leads to something akin to the 1990 unification of East and West Germany.
Even if there were at first very different systems in Pyongyang and Seoul, perhaps the North eventually might open and change. That was the thinking that undergirded Mr. Moon’s presidential campaign last year.
The liberal human rights lawyer has a history of backing the “Sunshine Policy” of diplomatic outreach to North Korea. He was once chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, a strong proponent of the policy, which factored heavily in the last major push for diplomacy by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kim Dae-jung, who held the presidency from 1998 to 2003.
Let the sun shine?
Talk of the Sunshine Policy increasingly has found its way onto Seoul’s university campuses in recent months.
“There’s an old Korean fairy tale about how the sun and the wind fight to get someone’s coat off,” student Yoon Jin-choe, 23, told The Times. “The wind blows up a big storm and really tries, but it only makes the person wrap his coat more tightly. It’s only when the sun shines that it becomes so warm the person just takes off his coat.
“I think that’s why its called the Sunshine Policy,” she said. “I know Kim Jong-un is a bad guy, not only because of the nuclear thing, but because he just kills a lot of his own people and he doesn’t care about people starving.
“But the approach Moon is taking is better than hostility,” Ms. Yoon said. “It’s a very hopeful moment right now.”
She said she was amazed in early April when Mr. Kim suddenly allowed for a concert in Pyongyang by acts from the South, including the K-pop girl band Red Velvet.
“When I saw the picture of Kim Jong-un looking at the South Korean singers, I was kind of touched because it looked like a miracle to me. I mean, how can Kim Jong-un be with Red Velvet?” Ms. Yoon said, laughing. “I think that’s all the work of President Moon. It wouldn’t have happened were it not for his efforts.”
But where will such theatrics really lead?
“It’s definitely a positive signal that the North and South are finally communicating with each other and trying to open their minds through cultural aspects,” said Kang Suyeon, 21. “But I’m not sure if it can lead to the political aspects.
“Kim Jong-un was really radical and really closed before. He was really provoking Trump and Trump was also provoking him, and now he’s changing his attitude?” said Ms. Kang. “I’m not really sure what he’s up to.”
‘We should start a war’
The prospect for diplomacy with the North hinges on the idea that Mr. Kim is serious about abandoning his nuclear program. But suspicion about his intentions are deep in Seoul.
“North Korea is lying,” said Oh In-suk, a 90-year-old South Korean war veteran. “They want to sustain their regime, and they’ll say anything to do it.”
Mr. Oh sat on a bench near a busy intersection in Seoul as he spoke with The Washington Times. When asked how he would resolve the North Korea crisis, he slowly removed his cap and rubbed his bald head before responding: “It’s impossible to talk with the North Koreans. We should start a war and then force reunification on the South’s terms.”
Others cringe at the idea of a war but say regime change not appeasement needs to be the goal.
Such feelings are strong among some of the more than 30,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.
“The Moon government’s interaction with Kim Jong-un is a very sad thing,” said Jun-hun Choi, a defector active in an organization of former North Korean military officials who have fled to the South.
“Ultimately, what we want is regime change,” Mr. Choi, 47, told The Times, suggesting that diplomacy could be a positive step only if it is pinned to aggressive goals and human rights.
“When the Moon administration came in, they extended the Kim regime’s life span,” he said. “They’re not interested in saving the North Korean people.”
Hope along the DMZ
Back in Myeongpa-ri, the tiny village in South Korea’s northeast, Mr. Chang said the long-term goal has to be some form of unification between North and South, and it has to start somewhere.
“The dialogue channel is open, and I find this very encouraging,” the 63-year-old village chief told a group of reporters, who were given a tour of the village by South Korean officials.
Many in Myeongpa-ri are older refugees of the war.
“Some say they want to walk across the border to visit their home villages if reunification happens,” said Mr. Chang.
The feeling is shared among other refugees who have lived for decades in the nearby city of Sockcho, where 72-year-old Park Kyung-sook, who arrived in the South when she was 3 years old, said Mr. Moon “is doing well” to make a summit happen with Mr. Kim.
“He’ll do what he can to make it work,” she said. “I just hope they find a common ground or some unity and can open the way for reunification.”
Closer to the Demilitarized Zone, which has divided the Korean Peninsula for more than 60 years, there are hopes that the summit will lead to a reopening of the North-South border for tourism.
A massive Inter-Korean Transit Office that once processed South Korean tourists allowed during the last warming of relations to traverse the DMZ and visit a resort on the northern side where pristine mountains meet the sea has sat idle since a 2008 incident in which North Korean soldiers gunned down a tourist on a beach.
A train station and railroad tracks leading north from the office feels ghostly. But Woo Gyenkeum, a South Korean official overseeing the office, said all could change quickly if the Moon-Kim summit goes the right way. If the green light is given, said Mr. Woo, “we could have the trains up and running in a month.”