SEOUL: Friday’s (Apr 27) Inter-Korean Summit is not the first between the leaders of the North and South, but it’s the first one South Korea is hosting.
In preparing for the historic meeting, the government in Seoul is leaving nothing to chance. A tightly choreographed schedule of the meeting has been released. A separate document explains what will be served at dinner, complete with why each dish is chosen.
But one thing that’s still kept under wraps: What will Moon Jae-in gift Kim Jong Un, and what would Kim give in return?
While gifts between leaders are never randomly chosen, such exchanges between the two countries, which are still technically at war, are particularly fraught decisions.
IN 2000: AN EXCHANGE OF DOGS
When South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met the North’s Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000, he brought with him a 60-inch TV, an electronic organ and three video tape recorders. But to break the ice, he also came with a pair of Jindo dogs, known in the South for their unwavering loyalty.
The North reciprocated by giving him two Pungsan dogs, renowned for their bravery. The puppies, called Unity and Independence, were taken to the presidential Blue House and lived as South Korea’s First Dogs for a few months, until President Kim sent them to the national zoo. They lived in a spacious enclosure there, giving birth to little ones until dying at the ripe old age of 13.
As for Peace and Reunification, the pair of Jindo puppies that went up North?
“I don’t know how they are doing in North Korea,” said Park Jie-won, Chief of Staff to President Kim, in an interview with Channel NewsAsia. “I never saw them again, I never asked.”
Given that it’s been 18 years, it’s safe to assume that they are no longer around.
IN 2007: DVDs AND MUSHROOMS
When the two sides met for a second time in 2007, United Nations sanctions prohibiting the export of certain luxury goods had already taken effect. That all but ruled out the possibility of South Korea giving the North more electronics goods, so Seoul opted for a more personal touch.
Aside from the usual local teas and tea set, President Roh Moo-hyun gave movie buff Kim Jong Il a DVD set of Tae Jang Geum, a 54-episode palace drama about an orphaned kitchen cook that became the first female physician to the Korean King.
But what Kim received was not some off-the-shelf stuff. It came complete with the autograph of lead actress Lee Young-ae, who’s said to have counted the Dear Leader among her millions of fans.
Compared to the South’s modesty, Kim Jong Il had a flair for extravagance. The North Korean leader sent three tonnes of fresh Matsutake mushrooms to the border for President Roh to take back.
The mushrooms, sometimes called the truffles of Asia, are a prized delicacy not only in the Koreas but also in Japan and China. Three tonnes of it would have cost US$2.6 million, according to reports at the time.
“It was three trucks I think,” says Lee Jae-joung, the South’s Unification Minister at the time. “President Roh gave it to more than 100 people. I had some, it was delicious.”
WHAT ABOUT 2018?
This time, the decision on what to gift to Kim Jong Un gets harder still, after the UN tightened sanctions in 2016. South Korean’s presidential Blue House said the gifts have been chosen but it would not say what they are.
Given the new sanctions list include “tableware of porcelain or bone china valued greater than $100”, a tea set is unlikely to feature this time.
Whatever President Moon Jae-in eventually gives to Kim, he’s unlikely to top Chinese President Xi Jinping, and neither should he try.
According to Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, Xi’s multiple gifts to Kim likely violated sanctions, including a large China vase and a set of porcelain tableware with gold rims. Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan gave a ruby ornament to Kim’s wife, possibly breaching the ban on export of precious stones to the hermit country.
Those gifts, together with nine bottles of Moutai, China’s most expensive liquor, are reportedly worth US$400,000 on the open market.