SEOUL — After 65 years in a technical state of war that has periodically descended into real conflict, Koreans on both sides woke up Saturday to a mind-boggling prospect: Could they finally be on the brink of a cold peace?

Newspapers in South and North Korea were plastered with photos of the South’s Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong Un meeting on the tense border that divides the peninsula in two.

“No war on Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearization, formal end to Korean War this year,” the Seoul Shinmun blared Saturday morning, summarizing the key points of the declaration that Moon and Kim signed after their historic meeting Friday.

In Pyongyang, the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party and a paper not known for being fast with breaking news, devoted four pages to the summit, complete with full-color photos.

“Historic summit opens new history of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity,” the paper declared.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, toasts with Ri Sol Ju, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, during a banquet at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone of South Korea on Friday.


The North’s Korean Central Television brought out its most authoritative anchor, Ri Chun Hee, to read the news of the agreement, complete with half an hour of footage from the summit. She even uttered the words “complete denuclearization.”

This sends a powerful message to the people of North Korea that this was a process Kim was personally invested in. It also sends a powerful message to skeptics in the outside world that this time may be different.

We were here in 1992, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with South Korea. Again in 1994, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with the United States. And in 2005, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with its four neighbors and the United States. And then there was 2012, when North Korea signed another agreement with the United States.

North Korea has never stuck to any of its agreements. So perhaps the wisest course of action would be to bet that North Korea won’t abide by this one, either.

Indeed, why would Kim Jong Un, the 34-year-old scion of the world’s only communist dynasty, give up a program that is so closely intertwined with his claim on the leadership and with his security?

But there are enough differences this time to give even a skeptic pause.

For one, Kim Jong Un is a very different leader from his father. He’s an extrovert who’s not afraid to make bold gestures, whether it be firing an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4 or inviting a surprised South Korean president to step into North Korea with him, as Kim did to Moon on Friday.

Kim called South Korea by its official name and North Korea by its South Korean name – linguistic gestures that spoke volumes about his desire to generate goodwill. He even acknowledged that North Korea’s roads and railways were far inferior to the South’s, that some North Koreans escaped, and that South Koreans had died in recent years because of North Korean attacks. These were significant admissions by North Korean standards.

For another, Kim’s rule now coincides with that of a hugely popular South Korean president – Moon’s ratings remain in the unprecedented 70s even after a year in office – who was elected with a mandate to engage with North Korea.

And then there’s the Trump factor. A cautious president who practices strategic patience might not rush headfirst into a summit with the United States’ most belligerent enemy, but an impulsive one itching with “strategic impatience” might.


This combination has put a significant dent in the standard South Korean nonchalance.

After the summit, people in the South lined up to eat cold buckwheat noodles – a North Korean specialty, and Kim’s contribution to the summit dinner Friday night – and watched the scenes of Moon and Kim play on televisions and smartphones.

Even some who didn’t watch the broadcasts from the summit found cause for hope.

“I haven’t completed my military service yet, so the declaration to end the war stood out to me,” said Lee Lu-da, 24, a college student in Seoul. All South Korean men must complete at least 21 months of mandatory service before they turn 30, a reflection of the fact that South Korea remains at war with the North.

“After Friday’s declaration, I’m cautiously optimistic that the conscription period might be shortened,” he said Saturday.

Another millennial, just old enough to remember the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, found Friday’s scenes moving, even though he’s not a big fan of Moon.

“My dad told me I will live in unified Korea when I grow up,” said Sun Seung-bum, 25, who’s studying for the civil service exam. “Of course, that hasn’t happened, and I didn’t have high hopes for this summit, either,” he said. “But when I saw the handshake between Moon and Kim, I found it quite moving. And the words like peace and end of war resonated even with a skeptic like me.”

Of course, there were plenty of people in South Korea who criticized the agreement for being too vague.

A few hundred conservatives waving South Korean and American flags took to the streets of central Seoul on Saturday to protest the agreement, and conservative politicians slammed it.

“The inter-Korean summit was a show of fake peace,” Hong Joon-pyo, head of the Liberty Korea Party, wrote on Facebook, criticizing in particular the vagueness of the clause on denuclearization. “Moon just took dictation from Kim Jong Un to get this declaration.”

But the idea of signing a peace treaty is something that could really happen – not least because Trump has said repeatedly that he supports the idea.

In their agreement, which included a reference to denuclearization, Moon and Kim said they would “actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

“Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further,” it said.

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