SEOUL: For a year filled with fireworks, when it comes to North Korea news, 2018 is ending on a whimper.
The past month had seen speculation that there would be one more monumental event on the Korean peninsula this year, with Kim Jong Un becoming the first-ever North Korean leader to travel to the South.
But South Korea’s presidential office said in a briefing earlier this month that it would be “difficult” for Kim to make the trip to Seoul before year’s end, as the leaders of the two Koreas had agreed at a summit in September.
Kim had crossed the demilitarised zone into South Korea territory in April but such a trip would have been a fitting cap for a year filled with unprecedented progress between South and North Korea.
As it is, 2018 ends with a stalemate in progress toward denuclearisation and uncertainty over whether the stunning diplomacy between the United States, South and North Korea can continue to move forward.
We may be about to learn that while a lot can change in a year, some important things remain the same.
FROM THE WINTER OLYMPICS TO THE FIRST INTER-KOREAN SUMMIT IN A WHILE
This year’s diplomatic good times have their origins in that most avowedly non-political of events – the Winter Olympics.
When South Korea hosted the winter games in February, North Korea agreed to send athletes and a group of supporters, and formed a joint women’s ice hockey team with South Korea.
The two sides marched together and cheered each other on, with government officials deeming the experiment a success.
They agreed to harness the momentum created by the games to step up inter-Korean exchange, which had been frozen over the previous several years, amid two consecutive right-wing administrations in South Korea and a string of nuclear and missile provocations by the North.
Amid the rapprochement mood came chatter that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim could come together for the first inter-Korean summit since 2007, which ended up being held in April, to rave reviews from both domestic and international media.
The two leaders captured the world’s attention through their friendly interactions. They wrapped up the day’s proceedings with the announcement of a statement outlining a range of exchanges in the areas of culture, military and government meant to keep the good vibes going, and usher in an era of lasting peace.
That was the first of three inter-Korean summits held this year. For historical context, before this year, there had been two, ever.
BRINGING DOWN THE ANTAGONISM TO THE TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT
After that first meeting, the two Koreas quickly began taking steps to bring down the antagonism that has characterised their relations for so long, with Seoul calling off loudspeaker broadcasts of K-pop across the border into the North, and Pyongyang announcing an end to nuclear and missile tests.
North Korea even invited international media to watch as it blow up a nuclear testing site, seeking to send the message that it would no longer seek to upgrade its arsenal of weapons.
The US also agreed to scale down and call off some annual joint military drills with South Korea, which are a perennial source of annoyance for the North.
Another milestone this year was the first ever summit between leaders of North Korea and the US, which was held in Singapore in June between Kim and President Donald Trump. After decades of brinkmanship, and a bitter history of war, they managed to publicly interact as potential partners instead of enemies.
A WELCOME CHANGE
As someone who lives on the Korean Peninsula, the past year has brought a welcome change to the tenor of life here.
While South Koreans are famous for remaining calm in the face of threats from North Korea, it is still nice to turn on the news each day and not have the conversation be dominated by talk of “tensions” and the possibility of war.
And the two Koreas are working to realise the goals for cooperation set out in their summit agreements. Just in recent weeks, the two Koreas have dismantled guard posts along their heavily fortified border, and moved ahead with plans to reconnect roads and railways.
Such ground-level developments don’t command a lot of international attention, but demonstrate that the two sides are working to made good on their promises.
As the year winds down, Kim’s no-show in Seoul is not the only sign that the good times may not roll on into next year.
Though US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has voiced hope of another Trump-Kim summit in early 2019, dialogue between the US and North Korea has been stalled in recent months, with Pyongyang bristling over Washington’s refusal to lift any of the sanctions that are stifling Kim’s efforts to improve his country’s economy.
The ongoing lull in communication between them underscores the uncomfortable reality that, for all the headline-grabbing events of the past year, there is no definitive evidence that the world is any closer to North Korea’s denuclearisation, that Pyongyang and Washington have made any real progress toward the impasse that has long divided them - North Korea wanting some kind of reward for moving away from nuclear armament, and US insistence that more tangible steps to denuclearise must come first.
The events of the closing year are unambiguously positive, but it is too early to pronounce 2018 a definitive turning point.
Historians will either look back on this year as when North Korea took its first steps away from rogue state status and toward earnestly joining the international community, or a last gasp of gullibility, a quaint time when there were still credible people who believed the North had any intention of changing.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.