Opinion | The ‘Failed’ Summit Isn’t So Funny in Seoul

Opinion | The ‘Failed’ Summit Isn’t So Funny in Seoul


The unceremonious end to the summit — without an agreement on nuclear policy, liaison offices, easing sanctions or a peace declaration — was thus received as a blow by South Korea and the global diaspora. Like many of my relatives and colleagues in Asia, I was willing to look past the strongman theatrics, toward a deal that might meaningfully open up North Korea. A friend in Seoul who works as an academic said she was worried that the lack of a deal would provoke right-wing attacks on President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who has faced outlandish accusations of propping up Communism. Another friend, who is active in the South Korean labor movement, cried in disappointment as he watched from New York.

Other Korean observers, though, approached the summit with caution. Park Sun-song, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, had expected small, practical gains from the summit, and not even this much was achieved. He emphasized that phrases such as “complete denuclearization” and “reduced sanctions” are shorthand for the dozens of painstaking decisions that lie ahead, about which facilities must be dismantled versus inspected, or which prohibitions on trade and investment should be lifted first. The Koreas are eager to restart their joint flagship projects in the North: tourism at Mount Kumgang and manufacturing in the Kaesong industrial complex. North Korea wants minimum security guarantees above all else, and the signing of a peace declaration could help provide such reassurance.

The anticlimax in Hanoi arrived at a poignant time. Friday was the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Movement, a key uprising in Korea’s struggle against imperial Japan and the first exercise of a uniquely Korean identity, according to the historian Suzy Kim. On March 1, 1919, a cheering crowd of some 5,000 intellectuals, activists, students, families and workers gathered in Seoul’s Pagoda Park cheering, “Mansei!” (“Long Live Korea!”) The leaders read a statement asserting Korea’s independence from Japan, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “We hereby declare that Korea is an independent state and that Koreans are a self-governing people.” Mass demonstrations were held across the Korean Peninsula and in Manchuria and the United States, and a provisional government was established in Shanghai, a center of the resistance. Yet Korea would have to wait until the end of World War II to gain its independence, only to be promptly divided into North and South.

In the Korean imagination, March 1 conjures images of flag-waving martyrs in traditional white hanbok and nostalgia for an ethnically pure, politically uncomplicated past. This is myth, of course, but it’s convenient when it comes to dealing with North Korea. President Moon has tried to use the holiday as yet another occasion for cross-border collaboration, like last year’s Pyeongchang Olympics. He invited the North Korean leader and his entourage to come to Seoul straight from Hanoi, to celebrate March 1. But the North Koreans remained in Vietnam, invited to attend a state banquet hosted by President Nguyen Phu Trong, and to lay wreaths at the mausoleum of Vietnam’s founding president, Ho Chi Minh.



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