On the second to last day of the year, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressing his desire to make progress towards denuclearization and peace in 2019. The personal letter was an unusual sign of good faith from the isolated North Korean dictator, marking a year of slowly defrosting relations between the two countries.
President Moon framed the letter as a sign of progress in the new year. “[Kim] has expressed his willingness to actively carry out agreements reached at the inter-Korean summits and the US-North Korean summit,” Moon said, referring primarily the underlying goal of denuclearization of the north. “Chairman Kim said he wants to meet frequently in the new year again in order to discuss practical issues related with peace and prosperity and the issue of denuclearization. I heartily welcome this.”
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Jong-un also sent a message to President Trump over the weekend, offering a “conciliatory message” on the two countries denuclearization talks. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to the news, and the precise nature of the message was not clear at the time of its reporting. The two countries have yet to set a date for renewed talks, however, and if the message to Trump bore any resemblance to the letter sent to President Moon it may have been a similar appeal to renewing face-to-face negotiations. Trump, despite the stalled relations between him and the North Korean leader, has said repeatedly that he is anticipating their next meeting.
President Moon’s office did not disclose the full contents of the letter, but said that Kim expressed his desire to plan a visit to Seoul, the South Korean capital, sometime in the future. A trip by Kim to Seoul by the end of 2018 was discussed by the two in Moon’s visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, earlier this year, but did not materialize after relations hit a stalemate in the aftermath of highly publicized negotiations.
A spokesman for President Moon, Kim Eui-kyeom, said that the Kim letter “expressed a strong determination to visit Seoul,” and that the North Korean dictator had “much regret” over not having organized the trip in 2018. Chairman Kim also reportedly reiterated his desire to “solve the issue of denuclearizing the peninsula together” and commit to the tentative resolutions he had made at the US and South Korean summits earlier in the year.
The precise nature of those agreements, however, is unclear; the summits with U.S. and South Korean officials produced many promises regarding improved economic relations and denuclearization, but nailing down those promises has proved difficult. The North Korean dictator has insisted that the U.S. must lift its sanctions on the country in exchange for gradual denuclearization, a demand that President Trump has not yet been willing to meet.
One thing that did not appear to be on the docket during the respective U.S. and South Korean summits was human rights for North Koreans. North Korean citizens living under the world’s longest-standing totalitarian regime have extremely limited access to food and are subject to arbitrary incarceration inside an organized system of concentration camps. It is unclear the effect that improved relations between the two Koreas would have on the lives of North Koreans themselves, although it is likely that a lifting of international sanctions would have a direct impact on their economic well-being.
Trump has, since their meeting in Singapore last summer, touted the progress being made in neutralizing the threat of North Korean nuclear power, but little in the way of concrete evidence has been presented to the public. The best sign, so far, of North Korea’s willingness to cooperate with foreign powers has been the abatement of its frequent nuclear tests, tests which are generally interpreted as a provocation and a way of instilling international fear and panic.
“Even though there will be a lot of difficulties going forward, our hearts will be opened to each other depending on how much effort we make,” said Moon in a Facebook post describing the letter.
President Moon’s visit to Pyongyang was one of a series of historic meetings between the two in 2018, and the first time a South Korean president had visited the north in 11 years. It was also reportedly the first time Chairman Kim had greeted a foreign leader at the Pyongyang International Airport since he inherited power from his father in 2011. The other two meetings between Kim and Moon took place just above the military demarcation line in Panmunjom village, where the 1953 armistice agreement was signed. Videos of the two leaders hugging and holding hands as they stepped together across the official line were shared widely online and interpreted as a sign of change on the horizon. Kim’s end of the year letter appears to have affirmed that sense of optimism among those who are hoping that 2019 will see a more cooperative North Korean regime.