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Kim Jong-un: May we dare to hope?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as they meet in a one-on-one session at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore, Tuesday. Reuters

By Michael Breen

Reaction in South Korea, and indeed across the world, to the first summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea has, as you would expect in this age of social media, been loud and mixed.

But if you cut away opinion, which is set alight by reluctance to credit the players ― North Korea's Kim Jong-un, U.S. President Donald Trump and, here in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in ― and if you discount the impatient expectation of some kind of Versailles-peace-treaty-in-a-day ― there is a common thread to the reaction.

It comes in the form of a question: May we now dare to hope?

May we dare to hope that the Korean War will end, that the two Koreas can live in peace, that our sons will no longer have to waste two years of their lives in the military, that some of that defense budget can go for other things, that North Koreans will be free and that we may drive up to Pyongyang for the weekend to see them?

Some of us are more on the yes, yes, yes end of the answer and some of us are in the teeth-sucking camp. But most move at different moments between both, inspired by the vista that now presents itself but mindful of the mountains still to climb.

Certainly, relations on the Korean Peninsula appear to be moving into a place that is so new that it is bewildering, as bewildering as democracy was when it came a generation ago.

What tempers our giddiness is that we have dared to hope before, only to be disappointed. The last time was in 2000 when the then President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung, flew into North Korea for a historic summit with its leader, Kim Jong-il. Kim Dae-jung had been one of the prominent dissidents whose struggle against military dictators delivered the democracy that now we take for granted but which, a generation ago, few could envisage ever coming.

We dared to hope, but were let down because, it turned out, North Korea just wanted our money. So, we ask now, have things really changed?

On the yes side, we note two differences. First, South Koreans are not alone. The story now is about the United States getting cozy with North Korea. In their statement on Tuesday, Trump and Kim Jong-un committed to "establish new U.S.-DPRK relations … for peace and prosperity." This, in my opinion, is the most significant of the four points of their joint declaration ― the others (a peace structure, denuclearization and recovery of war remains) are conditions for that new relationship to happen.

Second, this time it is the North Koreans who are initiating change. Whether driven to by Trump's belligerence last year or not, it was Kim Jong-un who signaled his willingness to reach out. To his credit, and unexpectedly for leaders who take a path of belligerence, Trump's decision to break with the U.S. tradition of refusing to meet North Korean leaders has brought us thus far.

Now, we look to the follow-up as U.S. and North Korean negotiators work out the details. If they are successful, it will of course change many things on the Korean Peninsula and will raise a new question: how do we live harmoniously with North Korea when it does not share our democratic values? It is one thing to rail impotently at the enemy over his human rights violations, but what if he is our friend?

Actually, dictatorial North Korea cannot be our friend. But this truth is being postponed right now. Our leaders are either deluding themselves or pretending that Kim can be their friend to get him to do what they want him to do.

And that leads to another question: Can the grandson of Kim Il-sung and the son of Kim Jong-il really give up the posture he has inherited of a North Korea committed to reunification on its terms? Normally, in politics, such a change of national vision requires a power shift ― a coup, an election, new leaders.

Is Kim Jong-un on his own letting go of all that has sustained his family's dynasty? Or is this outbreak of peace simply a change of strategy?

The answer is that we don't know yet, but right now, we dare to hope.


LETTER