One small step for…

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2018 - 12:00am

One small step for Kim Jong-un, one giant leap for peace on the Korean peninsula. Or was it?

At this point, after crossing over the demarcation line and setting foot on South Korea for the first time last Friday, Kim’s biggest hurdle is overcoming doubts about his sincerity in pursuing lasting peace and opening up his country to the world.

Yesterday, Seoul announced that Kim had committed during the summit to shut down his country’s nuclear test facilities this May, with US and South Korean experts and journalists possibly invited as witnesses.

This would be in line with Washington’s insistence on North Korea’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

Two South Korean presidents had met with their North Korean counterpart in the past, but Pyongyang continued to pose a threat to the region.

Will the latest summit of the two Koreas be different, and live up to its promise of peace? Media commentators who have followed the conflict for a long time tried not to be spoilers. Still, their doubts were spilling all over the place. But those are journalists – almost always a skeptical and suspicious bunch.

In much of Asia, however, actions and symbolic gestures can speak louder than words. We may be reading too much into the symbolism and letting conflict fatigue and optimism get the better of us. But North Korea’s unpredictable Kim appears genuinely ready to stop disturbing his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in’s sleep with missile tests.

Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, during their presidencies, met with Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il. But the two South Korean presidents were the ones who went to Pyongyang, with Kim flying to the North Korean capital in 2000 and Roh driving 120 miles from Seoul in 2007.

I’ve been to Panmunjom and looked to the North across the Demilitarized Zone a few times. I confess I’ve poked the soldiers standing guard on the northern side of the building where they signed the armistice, wondering if the unmoving guys were made of wax. Watching Kim walk from North to South, and later interacting with Moon, I couldn’t stop my skepticism from slipping away and giving way to cautious optimism about the prospects for peace in Korea.

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Journalists aren’t the only ones who are skeptical about Pyongyang’s desire for peace. In Japan earlier this year, a senior government official told me that rapprochement between the two Koreas should not detract from the need to denuclearize. “We should not be blinded by the charm offensive of North Korea,” the official told me in Tokyo. “We cannot accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”

The official noted that Pyongyang has developed sophisticated means of evading economic sanctions, including ship-to-ship transfer of supplies such as crude oil. But the official also conceded, “I think Kim is not an unreasonable person.”

So Japanese officials welcomed the participation of North Korean athletes as a team with South Koreans during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, southeast of Seoul, last month.

Any progress in the previous two summits with Kim Jong-il was ruined by his son’s missile tests. But South Koreans weren’t exactly surprised. Several South Korean officials cautioned me at the time, when foreigners were dismissing Kim Jong-un as a lightweight spoiled brat who might be deposed by the military following his father’s death, that the young man should not be underestimated, and that he would quickly show his country – and the world – who’s in charge in Pyongyang.

There followed several executions of officials with questionable loyalties, including Kim’s uncle, who by most accounts was stripped naked and fed to a pack of starved dogs in 2013 for plotting a coup against Kim. The uncle’s ally, a deputy public security minister, was reportedly burned to death with a flamethrower.

In May 2015, Kim had his defense chief publicly executed reportedly with an anti-aircraft gun.

Within five years of assuming power, Kim was believed to have ordered the execution of 340 people. That’s nothing compared to the thousands of suspects killed so far in President Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs, but Kim is the winner in brutality. The two might one day exchange notes; yesterday, Duterte said Kim is his idol.

Probably because of that record of brutality, people are impressed with Kim’s gestures supporting peace efforts – the hugs and handshakes and chats with Moon, the pouring of soil taken from mountains in the two Koreas around a pine tree planted during the 1953 armistice, and even his effort to bring Pyongyang noodles to Moon. That must be one good noodle if Moon requested it, since South Korean chap chae is already one of the world’s best.

Kim Jong-un, the dictator who literally fed his uncle to the dogs, was behaving like a normal person. He’s a big winner at the summit.

What might ruin the goodwill? Perhaps another nasty tweet from US President Donald Trump – but he himself is preparing for a summit with Kim. Maybe Trump will also sample Pyongyang noodles. He can switch on the charm when he wants.

If Trump could win over America-basher Duterte (I like Rodrigo!) and even make the Philippine President sing in public, Trump might yet charm Kim Jong-un. The US president appears to be angling for a Nobel Peace Prize, with some of his rah-rah folks already suggesting that recognition for the positive developments in Korea.

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Some South Koreans worry about unification with the North, based on their experience with defectors who are having a tough time assimilating. The communists have a different way of life, and different levels of education and skills sets. North Koreans are used to having the state take care of their needs, including providing employment.

But unification didn’t seem to be on the agenda at last week’s summit. At this point it looks like the two Koreas just want to be good neighbors with different systems, cooperating where possible particularly on the economic front.

With South Korea assisting the North in economic development, the two Koreas could go the way of China, which grew at such a dizzying pace the world could barely keep up.

Peace between the two Koreas will draw investors to the North. I can see risk-takers like Liwayway Group’s Carlos Chan rushing to North Korea to assess business prospects. It would be great to have another economic superpower emerge in this region.

A healthy dose of skepticism is good. But it’s also welcome news that we may no longer have to worry about being caught in the crossfire of nuclear Armageddon, or of having missile debris crashing into the Philippines.

It’s always good for the region to be a safer place. Despite our misgivings, the summit deserves applause.

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