SEOUL — After 65 years in a technical state of war that has periodically descended into real conflict, Koreans on both sides of the divide woke up Saturday to a mind-boggling prospect: Could they finally, finally, be on the brink of a cold peace?
Newspapers in South Korea and — astoundingly — in North Korea were plastered with photos of the South’s Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong Un meeting on the tense border that cleaves this peninsula in two.
“No war on Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearization, formal end to Korean War this year,” the Seoul Shinmun blared Saturday morning, summarizing the key points of the declaration that Moon and Kim signed after their historic meeting Friday.
In Pyongyang, the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party and a paper not known for being fast with breaking news, devoted four pages to the summit, complete with full-color photos.
“Historic summit opens new history of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity,” the paper declared.
The North’s Korean Central Television brought out its most authoritative anchor, Ri Chun Hee, to read the news of the agreement, complete with a half-hour of footage from the summit. She even uttered the words “complete denuclearization.”
It sends a powerful message to the people of North Korea: This is a process Kim is personally invested in. It also sends a powerful message to skeptics in the outside world that this time may be, just may be, different.
We have been here before.
We were here in 1992, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with South Korea. Again in 1994, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with the United States. And in 2005, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with its four neighbors and the United States. And then there was 2012, when North Korea signed another agreement with the United States.
North Korea has never stuck to any of its agreements.
So perhaps the wisest course of action would be to bet that it won’t abide by this one, either.
Indeed, why would Kim Jong Un, the 34-year-old scion of the world’s only communist dynasty, give up a program that is so closely intertwined with his claim on the leadership and with his security?
But there are enough differences this time to give even a skeptic pause.
For one, Kim Jong Un is a very different leader from his father. He’s an extrovert who’s not afraid to make bold gestures, whether it be firing an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4 or inviting a surprised South Korean president to step into North Korea with him, as Kim did to Moon on Friday.
Kim called South Korea by its official name and North Korea by its South Korean name — linguistic gestures that spoke volumes about his desire to generate goodwill. He even acknowledged that North Korea’s roads and railways are far inferior to the South’s, that some North Koreans have escaped and that South Koreans have died in recent years because of North Korean attacks. These were significant admissions by North Korean standards.
For another, Kim’s rule now coincides with that of a hugely popular South Korean president — Moon’s ratings remain in the unprecedented 70s even after a year in office — who was elected with a mandate to engage with North Korea.
And then there’s the Trump factor. A cautious president who practices strategic patience might not rush headfirst into a summit with the United States’ most belligerent enemy, but an impulsive one itching with “strategic impatience” might.
Striking the kind of sweeping denuclearization deal that President Trump wants looks unlikely, but even just freezing North Korea’s program would count as progress after last year’s alarming advances.
This combination of circumstances has put a significant dent in the standard nonchalance of the South.
After the summit, people in the South lined up to eat cold buckwheat noodles — a North Korean specialty, and Kim’s contribution to the summit dinner Friday night — and watched the scenes of Moon and Kim play on televisions and smartphones on a loop.
Even some of those who didn’t watch the broadcasts from the summit found cause for hope.
“I haven’t completed my military service yet, so the declaration to end the war stood out to me,” said Lee Lu-da, a 24-year-old college student in Seoul. All South Korean men must complete at least 21 months of mandatory service before they turn 30, a reflection of the fact that South Korea remains at war with the North.
“After Friday’s declaration, I’m cautiously optimistic that the conscription period might be shortened,” he said Saturday.
Another millennial, just old enough to remember the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, found Friday’s scenes moving, even though he’s not a big fan of Moon.
“My dad told me I will live in unified Korea when I grow up,” said 25-year-old Sun Seung-bum, who’s now studying for the civil service exam. “Of course, that hasn’t happened, and I didn’t have high hopes for this summit either,” he said. “But when I saw the handshake between Moon and Kim, I found it quite moving. And the words like ‘peace’ and ‘end of war’ resonated even with a skeptic like me.”
Of course, there were plenty of people in South Korea who criticized the agreement for being too vague.
A few hundred conservatives waving South Korean and American flags took to the streets of central Seoul on Saturday to protest the agreement, and conservative politicians slammed it, too.
“The inter-Korean summit was a show of fake peace,” Hong Joon-pyo, head of the Liberty Korea Party, wrote on Facebook, criticizing the vagueness of the clause on denuclearization in particular. “Moon just took dictation from Kim Jong Un to get this declaration.”
But signing a peace treaty is something that could really happen — not least because Trump has said repeatedly that he supports the idea.
In their agreement, which included a reference to denuclearization, Moon and Kim said they would “actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
“Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further,” it said.
Everything about the division of the Korean Peninsula is unnatural.
The division began one day in 1945, when it was clear that Korea’s colonial master, Japan, having just felt the force of two American atomic bombs, was about to surrender.
Two young U.S. Army colonels — one of them Dean Rusk, who would later go on to become the secretary of state — found a National Geographic map of Asia and simply drew a line across the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel, despite the fact that Korea had been one country for more than a thousand years.
The United States would administer the southern half and the Soviet Union the northern half — a temporary solution until the dust settled.
That temporary solution became permanent with the devastating war from 1950 to 1953, which solidified the division and made North and South enemies.
The Korean War finally came to a close in July 1953 when the two sides — North Korea and its Chinese backers, and the United Nations Command led by the United States — signed an armistice.
That agreement was to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”
Sixty-five years on, there has been no peace. And a great deal has changed since then.
North Korea has been ruled by the malevolent Kim family, which has turned the top half of the peninsula into the world’s most totalitarian and isolated state, complete with a personality cult and a gulag system.
South Korea, after decades under strongmen who were less repressive but nevertheless iron-fisted, has emerged as a democracy so vibrant that citizens peacefully removed a president from office last year. It has embraced capitalism and the Internet and Christianity — all technically banned in the North — with fervor.
Yet even after more than 70 years of arbitrary separation, Koreans still have so much in common. This reporter has been struck in her travels to North Korea by how culturally similar Koreans remain: They ask the same prying personal questions; they laugh at the same jokes; they want their children to lead better lives than they have.
Kim appealed to this sense of being two parts of one whole at the end of his summit with Moon on Friday, highlighting their shared language, history and culture. It was a ploy by Kim to forge a nationalistic bond with Moon and create a divide between South Korea and the United States. But it was also true.
The tragedy of this division is something that is often forgotten amid the nuclear weapons and threats of annihilation.
Moving toward a peace regime may allow more reunions between Korean family members separated by the divide, potentially giving brothers and sisters who haven’t seen each other in more than 65 years the opportunity to hold one another’s hands one last time.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.