When North Met South: A Short History of Inter-Korean Summits
Posted April 26, 2018 2:05 p.m. EDT
HONG KONG — In 2000, Kim Dae-jung, then South Korea’s president, flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea — the first time talks had ever been held between leaders of the two sides.
The distance between the two airports was just 100 miles. But the flight took more than an hour, because the plane swung out over the sea west of the Korean Peninsula, to avoid crossing the heavily militarized land border.
On Friday, Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son and North Korea’s current leader, is expected to walk across that border, where he will be greeted by President Moon Jae-in of South Korea before they sit down for talks on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone.
Friday’s talks, the third summit meeting between the Koreas, could produce a statement about pursuing a peace agreement to end the Korean War of 1950-53, which was paused by an armistice but never formally brought to a close.
But the meeting will probably be overshadowed by talks yet to come, said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“This summit will not make any important decisions,” he said. “The South Korean government is between a rock and a hard place. It’s not in a position to discuss most of the issues which really matter. It’s kind of a preliminary event to pave the road for a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.”
Trump and Kim are expected to hold the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a leader of North Korea sometime in late May or early June. An exact date and a location have not been announced.
Unlike the talks Friday at the DMZ, the past meetings between leaders of the Koreas were ends unto themselves. And each in its way helped prepare the two sides for Friday’s discussions.
— A breakthrough, six years delayed
A meeting between the two sides almost happened in 1994, but it was canceled after the death of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
When the leaders of the North and South finally met in June 2000, North Korea was emerging from a famine that killed more than 2 million people. In the South, former dissident Kim Dae-jung had been elected president. He called for an end to the “Cold War style” of relations in his 1998 inaugural address.
The meeting was a high point of his Sunshine Policy, which held that showering the North with warmth would help it ease out of isolation. The South sent hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer to the North each year.
There were other steps aimed at improving ties, including reunions for about 16,000 members of families divided by the war. A factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong and a resort area at Mount Kumgang, which opened in 1998, were developed with investment from the South.
Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, in part for his work toward reconciliation with North Korea.
But the North continued its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Even after it acknowledged that in 2002, the South kept sending aid. The Sunshine Policy, and the 2000 summit meeting in particular, fell under harsh scrutiny after it emerged that the South had paid the North $450 million before the talks.
— A second meeting, and plans soon dropped
The second inter-Korean summit meeting occurred in 2007, near the end of the five-year presidential term of Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun. North Korea had conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, raising questions about what the South was getting for its aid.
With the likelihood of an electoral victory by conservative political rivals who were expected to end the Sunshine Policy, Roh saw the meeting as a chance to steer the future of the South’s ties with the North.
“It was clear his party was going to lose in a landslide, and he understood that the conservatives had a very different idea of how to deal with North Korea: pressure, sanctions and cold war,” Lankov said. “In order to prevent that, he made a last-ditch effort to prevent a slide back to mutual hostilities. He went to North Korea to basically sign a lot of agreements about future economic development.”
The conservatives did win the subsequent election, and the Sunshine Policy was declared over in 2010. But projects outlined in 2007, then shelved, could be revived by Moon and Kim Jong Un, including plans to reduce the potential for conflict in the sea west of the Korean Peninsula, where deadly clashes between the two countries have taken place.
One other significant legacy from 2007 is Moon himself. He was chief presidential secretary to Roh and led preparations for his meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il.
While Moon has been in office for less time than Kim Jong Un or even Trump, he has deep experience with the sort of issues he will face Friday, said Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist at the University of Western Australia.
“Moon Jae-in, whether you love him or hate him, he’s a South Korean president who is not naive, who is highly experienced,” he said. “He saw the full arc of inter-Korean relations: naive, Pollyannaish introduction, to deeply disenchanted antagonism at the end.”