Commentary: Right now, it must feel good to be Kim Jong Un
The North Korean leader has achieved a level of international acceptance his father and grandfather never enjoyed, all without having to get rid of his nuclear weapons, says Steven Borowiec.
SEOUL: If the past year of diplomacy between North Korea and the United States were a television show, now would be the time when writers would be looking to spice up the plot to keep viewers interested.
They might look to introduce a new character or a narrative twist to prevent the story from stagnating.
US President Donald Trump, who as a former reality show star has a sense of audience engagement and showmanship, appears to have made such a calculation in his dealings with North Korea.
On Saturday (Jun 29), while on a visit to South Korea after attending the G-20 Summit in Japan, Trump made an impromptu offer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet shortly while he was on the peninsula. Sort of like how you might text a friend if you happen to find yourself at a bar or coffee shop in their neighbourhood.
After a flurry of logistical and security preparations, the two leaders did meet, along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, along the Demilitarised Zone that separates the two Koreas.
JUST A SHOW
Mindful of possible media headlines, Trump briefly crossed over the border, and became the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea.
The media coverage was predictably gushing, with many headlines describing the day as "historic".
But leaving aside the theatrics, no history of any substance was made on Sunday, and the meeting was little more than a show.
The reality is that the two sides have not made real progress toward getting North Korea to agree to relinquish its nuclear weapons programme.
They haven’t even agreed on what denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula means: North Korea has long taken the term to mean the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, something neither Seoul nor Washington would agree to.
And North Korea still hasn't disclosed exactly how many nuclear weapons the country possesses.
But these thorny issues weren't discussed on Sunday.
A SYMBOLIC MEETING?
Defenders of the meeting would likely argue that it held symbolic value. For symbolism, it's hard to do better than Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone as a setting.
The cluster of buildings at the border that separates South and North Korea is where the agreement to end combat in the Korean War was signed in 1953 and is today one of the few spots where it is possible to peer into North Korea.
Every day buses of international tourists visit Panmunjom to take photos of themselves with stern-faced North Korean soldiers in the background. Former US President Bill Clinton called it "the scariest place on Earth".
On his first official visit to South Korea last year, Trump called the DMZ the place where "the prison state of North Korea, sadly, begins".
If Trump and Kim wanted to make a bold statement about peace and cooperation, the DMZ would have been a fitting place to do so.
But that isn’t what happened.
SAME SPOT FROM A YEAR AGO AT THE SINGAPORE SUMMIT
Sunday's encounter did yield one modest bit of progress: The two countries reportedly agreed to restart working-group talks, a possible sign that the lull in dialogue since the fruitless second summit in February could end.
It has now been more than one year since Trump and Kim first met in Singapore. That meeting ended with plenty of cordiality, but little in the way of specific or binding agreements toward North Korea's denuclearisation.
That meeting was, nevertheless, valuable in that it suggested a new and different future for North Korea-US relations, and was a first step in a long journey.
The uncomfortable truth is that the two sides are in pretty much the same spot they were in a year ago.
There is no reason to believe that, if dialogue is restarted, it wouldn’t sputter on the same point that led to the breakdown of the February summit in Hanoi - the North wanting the US to relax sanctions while not committing to credible steps toward denuclearisation.
KEEPING UP THE STORY
Only Trump and Kim know for sure what their motivations are. Trump is gearing up to run for re-election, and therefore has an incentive to keep up the story of rapprochement with North Korea, to be able to claim that he has turned one of America's greatest adversaries into a friend.
Kim doesn’t need to worry about elections, but surely a US president seeking out his company has domestic propaganda value.
Overall, Kim has to be feeling pretty good. Despite his regime’s extensive human rights abuses, Kim has, in the past year, boosted ties with China, South Korea, Russia and the US.
He has achieved a level of international acceptance his father, and predecessor, never enjoyed, all without having to get rid of his nuclear weapons.
Not only is he the North Korean leader that bore witness to a sitting US President’s crossing of the DMZ into North Korea, he’s also pulled off the first visit to the country by the Chinese President in 14 years just last week.
READ: Why Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un are unlikely to share a truly deep or warm relationship, a commentary
And he’s definitely closer to North Korea being recognised as a nuclear state than before.
Trump hailed Sunday's meeting as "wonderful" and again talked about how he and Kim have a strong, mutually respectful relationship.
Cordiality between leaders is nice, but there is a downside to all the photo ops, in that they distract from issues of real importance that are not being addressed.
Did Trump push Kim to explain why millions of his people are in need of food aid?
Did he push for details on the death of American student Otto Warmbier, or did he ask about the assassination of Kim’s half brother, who reportedly was a CIA informant?
Did he inquire as to why Kim's regime routinely denies citizens social and political rights?
Those questions form the core of the real story, and Sunday’s event was a distraction.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.