A guessing game is under way in South Korea over whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will this month visit Seoul for the first time, with speculation growing after officials from both sides met at the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Friday.
Lee Eugene, a deputy Unification Ministry spokeswoman, refused to provide confirmation on whether the visit was on the meeting’s agenda when she was asked during a routine press briefing.
This was par for the course, given the Kim regime’s secretive nature and possible security threats from a North Korean leader entering so deep into South Korean territory. If he did so, Kim would be the first leader of the hermit nation to enter Seoul since the Korean war ended in 1953, in a visit that would come months after his April meeting with President Moon Jae-in at the Panmunjom Truce Village along the heavily guarded border.
But speculation continues to grow over the possibility, with a diplomatic source telling Bloomberg that South Korean police had reviewed security for Kim’s visit.
Moon reignited interest in the topic when he told reporters last week “the possibility of Chairman Kim Jong-un visiting within the year remains open”.
This came after Moon and US President Donald Trump held a summit on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina, where Trump reportedly delivered warm words about Kim to the South Korean premier.
“President Trump and I shared the view that Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul would play a very positive role in North Korea-US denuclearisation talks,” Moon told reporters aboard the Air Force One flight from Argentina.
The media flurry soon began and the dates that have been bandied about are December 18 to 20, with the rationale being that Kim would remain in Pyongyang for the memorial service for his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died on December 17, 2011.
Moon isn’t the only one who welcomes a trip from Kim. A Realmeter poll this week showed that more than 61 per cent of South Korean respondents want Kim to come to the South Korean capital, meaning such a trip could be less risky than previously thought.
Moon thinks a visit from Kim would help move along denuclearisation talks, which have become stagnant since the first North Korea-US summit in Singapore back in May.
But some analysts see Kim’s visit as unlikely, at least before the end of the year.
“I think the chances [of Kim visiting] are low,” said Shin Beomchul, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, who believes the North has little to gain from a visit at this point. “North Korea has rejected conversation with the US, so there’s no way to mitigate sanctions. There’s nothing South Korea can give them.”
Shin thinks the North will arrange a summit in Seoul when it becomes clear such a meeting will translate into sanctions relief from the US. But Trump has also signalled that he is ready for another summit with Kim, naming January or February as a possible timeline.
This has led other analysts to say a visit from Kim is almost guaranteed to happen, either before the end of December or early in 2019.
Kim’s visit to Seoul is likely to spark protests from human rights activists and refugees from North Korea. It will also anger conservatives, who still demand an apology for when a North Korean torpedo allegedly sank a warship called the Cheonan at a disputed inter-Korean maritime border, killing 46.
But a different kind of risk Kim has to consider is a blow to his image; not on the international stage, but to the people of North Korea. Kim’s image is tightly controlled in his country, where he is seen as impeccable and more than merely human.
According to a professor in Seoul with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named for his involvement in North Korean issues, this makes Kim’s travelling to Seoul a political risk at home.
“He could take a lot of damage to his image. But once he declares that North Korea is an open country, and they’re going to get along with the international community, then he shouldn’t be afraid of appearing as a human,” the professor said.
In 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for holding a summit with Kim Jong-il – who promised to visit the South when the time was right, but never made it.