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GUEST COLUMN: Is Kim Jong-un for Real?

Jeffrey Miller
Jeffrey Miller

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeffrey Miller, a native of La Salle, has been living and working in South Korea since 1990. He is the author of two books about Korea, “War Remains,” a novel about the Korean War, and “Bureau 39,” a novel about North Korea. We are sharing a column he provided to give context to what residents of South Korea are saying about the recent historic meeting between North and South Korean leaders.

Like many people in South Korea and around the world last Friday, I watched the news from Panmunjom of the historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in with keen interest.

Although there was this feeling of euphoria (one of my friends and noted author and veteran journalist Donald Kirk referred to it as a “warm and fuzzy peace summit” in The Daily Beast) and hope as millions watched the two leaders, smiling, shaking hands, and joking before they got down to the serious business of talking about the future of the two Koreas, there are some who view this “sudden” change of events with guarded optimism.

To be sure, there are some who may question this dramatic turnaround of events when it was only a few months ago when Kim boasted that one of his rockets could hit the continental United States.

While experts continue to analyze the historic meeting and the language of the declaration (some critics have already pointed out the vagueness of the language, that the North really hasn’t “conceded” anything, and there was no mention at all of reform or the improvement of human rights in the North) this feeling of euphoria just might seem too good to be true.

And in the aftermath of last week’s summit, it is now reported that President Donald Trump could meet with Kim as early as this month and that Kim will open its nuclear facilities to experts and journalists.

Pinch me. Is this just a dream? Or is Kim Jong-un for real?

For someone who has made South Korea home for the past 28 years, I’ve always looked upon these so-called peace offerings, initiatives, and declarations with guarded optimism.

After all, we’ve been down this same road many times.

Talk of peace on the peninsula and the “end” of the Korean War (the war only ended with an armistice and South Korea did not sign it) and the denuclearization of the peninsula is old news.

Since the end of the Korean War, there’s been the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation between North and South Korea (1991); the Agreed Framework (1994); the Pyongyang Peace Declaration (2000), and the Six-party Talks Agreement (2005).

Provocation and reconciliation — that’s been the modus operandi of the North since the 1960s. It worked for Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il. Who’s to say that the grandson isn’t just following in their footsteps?

It’s easy to come up with these agreements — the real challenge is rolling up your sleeves and getting down to business to make them work.

What has gone wrong in the past has been the language (perhaps it’s not a good idea to be “too” vague in spelling out terms and provisions) and of course, who’s going to “give” and who’s going to “take.”

It’s been a dangerous game of chicken that all parties concerned have played and the stakes, in this case, the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia have been quite high.

I’ll never forget the late spring of 1994 with the first nuclear crisis when it got really intense here … at a time when there was no internet or smartphones, which kept us in the dark for days on end until news broke that Jimmy Carter had met with Kim Il-sung and brokered a deal that halted the North’s nuclear weapons ambitions and prevented war breaking out. (Don Oberdorfer’s excellent tome, “The Two Koreas,” offers insightful analysis of that critical period.) But then, right after the Agreed Framework, the North started to backpedal, the way it has always done, and we were right back to square one.

So, what about this change of Kim’s heart? What’s different this time?

There have been reports that one of the North’s nuclear testing sites (in a mountain) had collapsed, which might have sent radioactive material China’s way. Who knows, maybe Kim needs some new allies (which might explain his recent trip to China)? Or maybe, Kim’s worried about staying in power and regime survival.

Without question, all those sanctions imposed are starting to wear North Korea down, and it became critical to broker a deal with its arch enemies. Or maybe, Kim has something up his sleeve. After all, Kim’s got our attention now without having to threaten us with nuclear war.

Will these winds of change on the Korean peninsula finally bring lasting peace? As many experts and analysts have already pointed out, time will tell. But if these recent developments tell us anything — that time may be close at hand.

As the late Dr. Horace Underwood (his grandfather was one of the first missionaries to arrive in Korea in the 1880s) told me during an interview on the day of the 2000 summit, as long as both sides are talking, that’s a good thing.

Kim and Moon got the ball rolling; next up, the summit between Kim and Trump. If Trump is going to meet Kim in a few weeks, he’s got his work cut out for him if this declaration is the real deal. This could very well be the defining moment of his presidency with the whole world watching. I believe we’ll all have a better handle on things after their summit … and hopefully rest easy.

Despite those other times when things didn’t work out the way we all hoped they would, maybe this time there’s reason to believe it will work. We have to make it work. After all, the alternative is a road we don’t want to walk down … again.

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