The National Intelligence Agency (NIS) chief Suh Hoon told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may visit South Korea’s southern port city of Busan to attend the Korea-ASEAN Special Summit in November, if U.S.-North Korea working-level denuclearization talks work out well. Although he attached a string to the condition, he left the possibility of Kim’s visit to South Korea open. The spy chief’s mention of the sensitive issue is not something that can be taken as an expression of a simply general principle.
Kim’s South Korea visit has to happen someday in order to advance the inter-Korean relations. In addition to the fact that it was agreed during the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang a year ago, it is necessary for the North’s supreme leader to visit the South at least to compensate South Korean presidents’ three visits to the North Korean capital over the last 19 years.
Kim’s visit is such a sensitive issue as to trigger huge controversies within South Korea. It is expected that pros and cons about it will escalate to a fierce ideological confrontation. However, his visit to the South could serve as catalyst that prompts Kim to turn his secluded country into a more open society by making him witness the liberal democracy of South Korea. Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, said that South Korea must induce Kim to return a visit to make the occasion an opportunity to let him learn about the liberal democratic system of the South by letting him witness South Koreans oppose the North’s hereditary power succession or cheer his reign in public squares.
However, Kim’s visit should not be the goal itself. The fundamental and key element of the Korean Peninsula issues involves the North’s denuclearization. Without a nuclear-free North Korea, it would be hard to expect to make progress in the inter-Korean relations, let alone the U.S.-North Korea relations. Although the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. met in New York on Tuesday to coordinate the two allies’ views on the Washington-Pyongyang working-level denuclearization talks, it remains difficult to be optimistic about the results of the talks, as Washington makes it clear that it will maintain its sanctions on the North until its denuclearization. Kim is also expected to focus on the working-level talks, rather than on the inter-Korean relations.
Even though Seoul’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae called on Kim to make a return visit to the South last weekend, Pyongyang failed to respond. If Kim thinks it will be hard to get what he can show off to his people through a Seoul visit, it is unlikely that he will come to the South just for the sake of a visit. If the South Korean government seeks Kim’s visit just for the sake of one, it would only face opposition parties’ criticisms that it is using the issue with a view to overcome its political crisis. The name of the game is the North’s complete denuclearization, and Kim’s visit is nothing but a byproduct. Seoul should not set the cart before the horse by being carried away by the talks of Kim’s possible visit.