North, South Koreans agree to hold Pyongyang summit in September

TOKYO — North and South Korea agreed Monday to hold a summit between the leaders of their two countries in Pyongyang in September for only the third time in history.

The Trump administration might have run into slightly rougher waters in its attempts to convince North Korea to denuclearize in recent weeks, but in Korea the two sides appear to be pressing forward slowly but steadily in their peace process.

North and South Korean government officials held talks Monday on the northern side of the border village of Panmunjom, announcing afterwards they had “agreed to hold the planned inter-Korean summit in September in Pyongyang.”

The summit would be the third between South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this year. It would be only the third time that a South Korean leader has traveled to Pyongyang to meet his North Korean counterpart.

In remarks before the talks got under way, Ri Son Gwon, the leader of the North Korean delegation and chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country said he hoped the planned summit would help give “concrete answers” to the problems people are facing.

“It is a different story than U.S.-North Korea which seems to have become bogged down,” said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The two Koreas are more in stride, and the process has ‘taken’ better.”

That’s not to say that the peace process across the divided Korean peninsula is smooth sailing. 

On Sunday, a North Korean propaganda website blamed Seoul’s “blind obedience” to U.S.-led sanctions for what it called the failure to make progress since Moon and Kim met on the border in a blaze of publicity in April.

“It’s been more than 100 days since the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration was adopted, but no reasonable fruit or progress has been produced,” the website Uriminzokkiri wrote. “It is because of America’s sanctions and the South’s unfair participation in them.

Some South Korean reporters also pointed out a mismatch in the make-up of two delegations on Monday: North Korea brought officials in charge of railways, land and environmental protection and economic cooperation to the talks, whereas the South Korean side was made up of officials from the unification ministry, national security office and prime minister’s office.

But if that suggested differing priorities, the opening statements as the talks got underway Monday were all about friendship and rapprochement.

“In a realistic sense, this is the major transformation in the inter-Korean relationship,” North Korea’s Ri said. “That we are meeting to exchange talks in such friendly mood like right now, signifies that the communication is working.”

In a joint statement afterwards, the two sides said they had “examined the implementation status of the Panmunjom Declaration, and sincerely discussed matters to put into practice more actively.”

By contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to come away empty-handed from a trip to Pyongyang following the June Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim, with North Korea blaming his “gangster-like mindset.”

Last week, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also criticized “high-level officials” within the U.S. administration for insisting that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons before sanctions are eased, and for making “desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure.” 

Those officials, the foreign ministry said, are “going against the intention of President Trump” to advance relations between the two countries.

But while the declaration that followed Trump’s meeting with Kim was widely criticized for being too vague, the Panmunjom Declaration reached between Moon and Kim was much more detailed, Delury said. The two sides also have more experience talking to each other from previous peace processes. 

“The two Koreas match up, they know their counterparts,” he said. “The South Koreans have done this before when they were in government, they are not new to this. When things start to go wrong, they are like, ‘oh yeah, we’ve had this before.’ ”

Delury said that was not a criticism of Trump and his team, but just to highlight the different problems and context between the two parallel peace processes.

A visit by Moon to Pyongyang would be another propaganda coup for North Korea, especially if can be arranged before the Sept. 9 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, when major celebrations are planned. 

South Korea media reported that Moon may also urge Kim to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September.

Min Joo Kim reported from Seoul.

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