GOYANG, South Korea—North Korean state media were silent Saturday, a day after the leaders of the two Koreas met and vowed to remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula and work toward a formal end to the Korean War. Despite the bold declaration, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in failed to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions.
North Korea’s media have not publicly mentioned the summit since reporting early Friday that Kim had left the capital Pyongyang to meet with Moon. It’s possible the North is spending extra time so that its propaganda experts can give the summit a major news treatment on television and in newspapers later Saturday.
If the substance on nuclear matters was light, the images Friday at the border village of Panmunjom were striking: Kim and Moon set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together across the cracked concrete slab that marks the Koreas’ border.
The sight, inconceivable just months ago, allowed the leaders to step forward toward the possibility of a co-operative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread skepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.
On the nuclear issue, the leaders merely repeated a previous vow to rid their peninsula of nuclear weapons, saying they will achieve a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization.” This kicks one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in coming weeks.
“There is no reference to verification, timetables, or an attempt to define the word ‘complete.’ It does not reiterate or advance Pyongyang’s unilateral offer to halt nuclear and ICBM tests,” said Adam Mount, a senior defence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “In practice, this statement should enable a U.S.-North Korea summit to detail specifics about what, when, and how denuclearization would occur, but it has not offered a head start on that process. All of the negotiation is left to a U.S. team that is understaffed and has little time to prepare.”
Still, the summit produced the spectacle of two men from nations with a deep and bitter history of acrimony grinning from ear to ear after Kim walked over the border to greet Moon, becoming the first leader of his nation to set foot on southern soil since the Korean War. Both leaders then briefly stepped together into the North and back to the South.
“We all need to be careful and not assume anything,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in Washington when asked whether Canada has any concerns with the early stages of a fledgling peace process.
The focus has to remain on the issue of nuclear proliferation, said Freeland, who was in the U.S. capital for the ongoing NAFTA negotiations.
“That is the Canadian concern, that is the focus of Canadian sanctions and that is the focus of this diplomatic process, which we really welcome and encourage,” she told reporters.
“To that end, we also call on North Korea to demonstrate concrete action toward completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantling its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs,” Freeland later added in a statement.
The summit marks a surreal, whiplash swing in relations for the countries, from nuclear threats and missile tests to intimations of peace and co-operation. Perhaps the change is best illustrated by geography: Kim and Moon’s historic handshake and a later 30-minute conversation at a footbridge on the border occurred within walking distance of the spot where a North Korean soldier fled south in a hail of gunfire last year, and where North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. soldiers with axes in 1976.
Standing next to Moon after the talks ended, Kim faced a wall of cameras beaming his image live to the world and declared that the Koreas are “linked by blood as a family and compatriots who cannot live separately.” The leaders also vowed to achieve “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization,” something they’ve said before.
The latest declaration between the Koreas, Kim said, should not repeat the “unfortunate history of past inter-Korean agreements that only reached the starting line” before becoming derailed.
What happened Friday should be seen in the context of the past year — when the United States, its ally South Korea and North Korea threatened and raged as the North unleashed a torrent of weapons tests — but also in light of the long, destructive history of the rival Koreas, who fought one of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts and even today occupy a divided peninsula that’s still technically in a state of war.
Those tensions appeared to peak in January, just as Canada co-hosted a Korea summit with the United States in Vancouver.
But they eased as the leaders of both countries embraced overtures from one another during the February Olympic Games held in South Korea.
Trump tweeted Friday, “KOREAN WAR TO END!” and said the U.S. “should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” Both Koreas agreed to jointly push for talks this year with the U.S. and also potentially China to officially end the conflict, which stopped with an armistice that never ended the war.
Many will be judging the summit based on the weak nuclear language. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests last year likely put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. The North, which has spent decades doggedly building its bombs despite crippling sanctions and near-constant international opprobrium, claims it has already risen to that level.
South Korean conservative politicians criticized the joint statement as letting North Korea off the hook by failing to secure a clear commitment on nuclear disarmament. Liberty Korea Party chairman Hong Joon-pyo denounced the summit as a “show camouflaged as peace.”
But the Koreas made inroads on a raft of other points of friction between them. Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, sometime this fall, and both leaders said they’d meet on a regular basis and exchange calls via a recently established hotline.
They agreed to settle their disagreement over their western maritime border by designating it as a peace area and securing fishing activities for both countries. They said they’d open a permanent communication office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and resume temporary reunions of relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
“I feel like I’m firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of (the two Koreas) writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity,” Kim told Moon as they sat at a table, which had been built so that exactly 2018 millimetres separated them, to begin their closed-door talks. Moon responded that there were high expectations that they produce an agreement that will be a “big gift to the entire Korean nation and every peace-loving person in the world.”
Kim acknowledged the widespread skepticism over their summit. “We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfil them. … There are skeptical views on whether the meeting today will yield meaningful results,” Kim said. “If we maintain a firm will and proceed forward hand in hand, it will be impossible at least for things to get worse than they are now.”
Kim, during their talks, joked that he would make sure not to interrupt Moon’s sleep anymore, a reference to the North’s drumbeat of early-morning missile tests last year, according to Moon’s spokesperson, Yoon Young-Chan. Kim also referred to South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, which North Korea attacked with artillery in 2010, killing four, saying its residents who have been living in fear of North Korean artillery have high hopes the summit will help heal past scars. Kim said he’d visit Seoul’s presidential Blue House if invited.