A tale of two summits: why North Korea is finally speaking to its enemies

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s similarities, plus a lot of help from South Korea, have led to unprecedented plans for bilateral talks.

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It is forecast that, in the spring of 2018, the political climate surrounding the Korean peninsula is likely to be warm.

After almost a decade of military tensions and a diplomatic standoff, the leaders of North and South Koreas have finally agreed to meet in April. More dramatically, an unprecedented US and North Korea summit is due to be held in May.

While it’s unpredictable how these bilateral talks will end, their announcement is already changing the mood music in the region.

The emerging détente in the Korean Cold War was hardly imaginable until the end of 2017. This is largely thanks to the hostile and volatile characteristics of US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Both leaders have an unconventional approach to foreign affairs, to put it mildly. Particularly in US-North Korean relations, they have been playing a political game of spectacular gestures and hyperbolic rhetoric. Trump’s Twitter brinkmanship and Kim’s frenzied responses showcase their non-traditional diplomatic tactics.

However, similar though they are, these online provocations – alongside North Korea’s provocative nuclear and missile programme – have only escalated antagonism between the two sides. 

As the risk of a war became manifest on the Korean peninsula, the South Korean president Moon Jae-in stepped in and volunteered to be an intermediary.

When the Winter Olympics were only a couple of months away, Moon used this event as a diplomatic opportunity. He formally invited North Korea to Pyeongchang 2018 and, at the same time, asked the US to postpone the routine joint military exercise in South Korea until the end of the sporting occasion. The communist regime remained silent but the American government agreed to delay the military drill.

In his New Year message, Kim Jong-un suddenly declared that his country would support the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and would participate in the event. Moon Jae-in welcomed the signal from the North. A diplomatic channel between the two Koreas was also restored.

Eventually, North and South Korea paraded as one at the opening ceremony and fielded a unified Korean women’s ice hockey team for the first time.

Talk of peace and unification defined the Winter Olympics. The North Korean delegation included a pop orchestra and more than 200 woman cheerleaders. These cultural ambassadors easily outnumbered the North Korean Olympic athletes and presented artistic and choreographic spectacles throughout the sporting event. Their musical performances at the concert hall and synchronised cheers in the stadium grabbed huge media attention globally.

The most dramatic feature was Kim Yo-jung, the sister of Kim Jung-un, making her debut on the Olympic stage. This marked the first North Korean ruling family visit to South Korea. Sending his sibling to the global festival was part of the communist leader’s charm offensive.

Moon Jae-in received the VIP from the North at the presidential palace in Seoul. At the reception, she delivered a message from her brother to the South Korean president, including an invitation to the North Korean capital Pyeongyang.

Special envoys from the South were dispatched to the North after the Olympics. Kim Jung-un met the South Korean senior officials within a few hours of their arrival, and even hosted a dinner for them on that evening, which lasted more than four hours.

This was at odds with conventional diplomatic protocol. Normally, the meeting with the head of state is the climax of a diplomatic visit, and this usually happens after bargaining between delegates. Kim bypassed this step and received the South Korean guests directly.

During these high-level talks, the two sides agreed to hold the inter-Korean summit in late April. Additionally, the North Korean leader stated that he was prepared to talk to the US about de-nuclearisation. The South Korean envoys travelled to Washington to brief Trump on their visit to Pyeongyang.

The American president immediately announced his willingness to meet Kim Jong-un in May. After more than half a century of hostile US-North Korean relations, the US President’s quick reply to the North Korean offer – and his proposal to hold a historical summit in two months’ time – was stunning news, even if it may simply reflect Trump’s idiosyncratic propensity for creating diplomatic soap operas.

Moon Jae-in should take credit for laying a bridge between the US and North Korea. The inter-Korean summit in April can lubricate the subsequent dialogue between Trump and Kim in May.

Only a few months ago, these two eccentric leaders shouted insults at each other. The tone of their first encounter offline will surely be calmer than that of their online showdown. But this by no means suggests that tensions and pressure will be absent from the negotiations. Hopefully, the saga of a “rocket man” and a “dotard” will result in a less provocative outcome.

Dr Jung Woo Lee is lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests lie in sport and inter-Korean relations. He recently published (with two co-editors) an edited volume of the Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics.