South Koreans celebrate summit anniversary, but N. Korea’s a no-show

South Koreans and foreign dignitaries were treated to a light show in the truce village of Panmunjom during a celebration of the first anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit, Saturday, April 27, 2019.


By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 28, 2019

PANMUNJOM, South Korea — A spectacular light show decorated a building and one of South Korea’s most famous K-pop stars sang John Lennon’s peace anthem “Imagine.”

For a few hours on Saturday, the truce village of Panmunjom was turned into an outdoor concert hall as South Korea celebrated the first anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit.

The North Koreans, however, were nowhere in sight and their side of the Joint Security Area that straddles the heavily fortified border was silent.

The contrast underscored how much the situation has deteriorated since nuclear talks with the United States stalled, setting back President Moon Jae-in’s hopes for peace.

The April 27, 2018, summit was a high point as diplomacy gained momentum, reversing months of tensions that saw the North conduct a series of nuclear and missile tests.

It also paved the way for an unprecedented U.S.-North Korean summit less than two months later, when President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a vague commitment to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The two Korean leaders, who held two more summits last year, agreed to an ambitious agenda of bilateral economic and military initiatives. But the mood has soured since Trump and Kim ended their second summit without agreement in February in Vietnam.

Show must go on

Moon, who did not attend Saturday’s ceremony in person, expressed optimism in a video message broadcast to about 500 people in the audience.

The South Korean president, who has staked his political legacy on the peace process, acknowledged problems but insisted that it was a matter of time.

“This is a new path, and as we all must take it together, we need sometimes to wait for those moving slower to catch up,” he said.

“As years go by following the Panmunjom Declaration, we will encounter an irreversible peace on the Korean Peninsula in which everyone prospers together,” he added, referring to the agreement from the first summit.

South Korea informed the North of its plans to hold the ceremony but never received a response, according to the Unification Ministry.

Even the North Korean soldiers usually standing guard on their side of the JSA appeared absent, although they most certainly were watching from a distance.

Kim spent much of past week in Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin in what was widely seen as an attempt to hedge his bets by appealing for support from a rival of the United States.

North Korea has shown growing frustration over the U.S. all-or-nothing approach, with the Trump administration refusing to ease sanctions in exchange for gradual disarmament steps.

State-run media have stepped up rhetoric calling on the South to ignore U.S. pressure and move forward with inter-Korean projects.

On Saturday, the Korean Central News Agency condemned U.S.-South Korean military exercises, saying the allies’ decision to change their names and scale them back wasn’t enough.

U.S. and South Korean authorities “had better think twice, mindful that their thoughtless saber-rattling will bring miserable repentance and catastrophic results only,” KCNA warned.

Summit setbacks

In the honeymoon after the first summit, the two Koreas moved quickly to prepare to link railways and established a joint liaison office.

They also disarmed the JSA and cleared mines from parts of the Demilitarized Zone as part of an effort to recover remains of troops who died during the 1950-53 Korean War.

But progress has been limited by the U.S.-led international sanctions aimed at punishing the North for its nuclear program.

“Despite the dramatic meeting and much expectation, denuclearization of North Korea seems to be unattainable and relations between the two Koreas, and between the U.S. and North Korea are at an impasse,” the South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo wrote in an editorial.

Seoul and Washington, which have been allies since the war ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty, insist they’re on the same page on how to deal with the North.

But concerns about a rift have emerged as Moon, who has staked his political legacy on the peace process, presses for concessions to encourage the North to return to talks.

Trump says he would like to ease sanctions but only after denuclearization is achieved.

Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, said the inter-Korean process has reduced tensions and Pyongyang should rethink its criticism of Moon.

“While the Trump administration’s hard-line position denying any sanctions relief until denuclearization is complete is hindering Moon’s ability to deliver on proposed inter-Korean projects, North Korea should recognize that alienating Moon will only exacerbate the current stalemate between Pyongyang and Washington,” she said in an email.

Symbolic sites

The JSA, the only point along the 155-mile long border where guards from both sides face each other, was full of reminders of the first summit on Saturday.

The blue foot bridge where the leaders walked smelled of fresh paint and had place settings with macarons and teacups on the picnic table where they held a private chat.

A Japanese flautist and pianist played by the pine tree that was planted by the two leaders nearby.

American cellist Lynn Harrell performed Bach’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello in front of the spot between two of the area’s iconic blue buildings where Moon and Kim first shook hands.

“If you had told me a year ago I would see a cello player sitting right there, I don’t think I would’ve believed you,” Army Capt. Matthew Sturgis, an American member of the United Nations Command Security Battalion, said as he stood on the steps overlooking the scene.

The U.S.-led UNC, which oversees the buffer zone under the armistice agreement, must approve all activities there.

The performances were recorded and later broadcast along with live acts from K-pop star BoA and other South Korean and Chinese artists on the big screen near the three-story Peace Building.

Pope Francis also urged patience in a video message.

Cheong Ok-im, 53, traveled to the ceremony with friends from the area of Yeonchun.

“It’s very difficult for individuals to come here separately so I feel very, very honored to be here,” she said. “I feel very bad that North Korea wasn’t part of this event. It would have been much better if they had joined us, but it’s still important to celebrate.”

Twitter: @kimgamel

The table on the foot bridge where the North and South Korean leaders held a private chat was laid out with macarons and tea cups to recreate the scene for celebrations of the first anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit, Saturday, April 27, 2019.