North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are expected to meet for the first time on April 27. While dialogue is important, we must dial back expectations that this summit will solve all of the issues at stake.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are expected to meet for the first time on April 27 in what’s being referred to as the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit. The talks will take place on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone at Peace House, which would make Kim Jong-un the first North Korean leader to visit the South since the Korean War. Kim has vowed to suspend nuclear testing while talks are underway.
While many hope this meeting could serve to thaw some tensions, we must dial back expectations that this summit will solve all of the issues at stake. Dialogue is certainly important, but the relationship between the North and the South is highly complicated. Sorting out military, human rights, and economic concerns will take a long time, and the United States and Japan must be part of those conversations as well.
In stark contrast to the North, South Korea is a vigorous democracy, where people have freedom of speech, worship, and assembly. President Moon’s ultimate goal must be to see all Koreans live under these conditions of freedom.
The rights of the North Korean people must remain a central focus as these conversations continue to develop. While any progress on reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and conventional arsenal will be welcome, we should not ignore the atrocious human rights abuses taking place in the North. Over 100,000 North Koreans languish in brutal prison camps.
We should also take note of the fact that South Koreans are deeply divided over whether and how to engage with North Korea. Some favor more engagement as a way to gradually bring change, while others are adamant that any contact with Pyongyang only provides breathing space for the regime and extends its power.
One human rights question where most South Koreans do agree is family reunification. Many South and North Korean families have been divided by the border for generations. President Moon should address family reunification and attempt to make progress at the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit.
More controversially, President Moon might seek progress on the economic front by calling for the reopening of Kaesong Industrial Region in the North, where South Korean companies have invested. While Kaesong would help some North Koreans by providing good jobs and living wages, it would seem out of step at a time when the world is increasing economic pressure on Pyongyang.
Another area where South Korea should press is opening lines of communication. While North Korea will almost certainly resist, the South should push for measures such as allowing cross-border telephone calls and insisting North Koreans be allowed greater access to internet, email, and social media. We are already seeing cultural exchanges through sports and a recent tour of South Korean K-pop stars performing in Pyongyang. Of course, only trusted elites get to enjoy privileges like these, but the cultural exchanges are tied to human rights and should continue.
While it is doubtful that the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit will lead directly to military de-escalation, progress on the human rights front is still possible. And with that hope in mind, new channels of dialogue remain important and must be encouraged.