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(News Focus) N.K. leader surprises with promise to visit Seoul soon

All Headlines 14:56 September 19, 2018

SEOUL, Sept. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's promise to visit Seoul in coming months is the latest in a series of surprises and departures from the past that appear to show he's different from his late father, the previous leader.

If carried out, it would be the first time that the North's highest leader has set foot in the South's capital since the division of the Korean Peninsula, something that has long been considered nearly unthinkable in the South.

All inter-Korean summits have taken place either in Pyongyang or at the border village of Panmunjom.

Kim, however, is not the first North Korean leader to agree to visit Seoul. His father, late leader Kim Jong-il, also agreed to visit the South when he held the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000 with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

But that promise wasn't specific, as he agreed to visit only "at an appropriate time." Few expected the promise would be honored by a leader who was so reclusive that his train trips to neighboring China and Russia made huge headlines in the outside world.

There is no guarantee Kim Jong-un will make good on the promise, and whether the proposed trip will materialize depends largely on how denuclearization negotiations between the North and the U.S. go. Still, Kim sounded far more specific than his late father.

"I promised President Moon Jae-in that I will visit Seoul in the near future," Kim said during a joint press conference with Moon to announce the results of their two rounds of summit talks in the North's capital earlier Wednesday.

Moon later added that what Kim meant by the "near future" was "this year," saying that such a landmark trip will serve as a "dramatic turning point in improving relations between the South and the North."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hold a joint news conference in Pyongyang on Sept. 19, 2018. (Yonhap)

During the talks, Kim also agreed to permanently dismantle the North's main long-range missile engine testing facility and the missile launch pad under the watch of international inspectors and promised to take additional steps, such as shutting down the country's main Yongbyon nulear complex, depending on what measures the U.S. takes in return.

The two leaders also agreed to take steps to further bolster inter-Korean exchanges and economic cooperation, such as reconnecting cross-border roads and railways, and to work together to win the right to host the Summer Olympics in 2032.

For years since taking over the North following the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-un was portrayed by the outside world as a cold-blooded dictator who did everything to keep himself in power, including executing his uncle and having his half-brother assassinated with poison, while pushing for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Kim shattered that image with a surprise outreach and charm offensive that began with his New Year's address. That led to the three summit meetings with Moon -- in April, May and this week -- and the historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.

It also led to rapid improvement in the North's long-strained ties with China.

Through these meetings, the Swiss-educated Kim acted as if he were leader of a normal state. For instance, he didn't shy away from holding press conferences with Moon, something that his father never did during his two summits with the South in 2000 and 2007.

What also drew media attention this week was the humble and frank way he talks.

After escorting Moon and first lady Kim Jung-sook into the North's state guesthouse on Tuesday afternoon, Kim said it was far from the world's best.

"Mr. President visits many countries around the world. Compared with developed countries, (our guesthouse) is a bit shabby," Kim said during a brief chat with Moon. "This may be a low standard, but I hope you will accept this with our heart."

It's not easy for the leader of a country, especially a totalitarian nation like the North, to acknowledge the shortfalls of his nation. Observers say the North's leader may be using such humility and candidness to underline the point that his denuclearization commitment is genuine.

It was not the first time Kim had talked frankly about the North's decrepit economy and infrastructure.

During April's first summit with Moon, Kim said he wanted to invite Moon to the North but that he was "concerned that our transportation (infrastructure) is inadequate."

Kim also talked about how developed the South was, referring to what he heard from visitors to the Winter Olympics in the South's city of PyeongChang earlier this year.

"A visitor to PyeongChang said the high-speed train was very good," Kim said of the bullet train services that the South ran to the Olympic venue. "Showing the North to people from the South would be very embarrassing."

All these point to an ordinary leader of an ordinary nation.

However, one thing that remains unchanged from the time of his father's rule and makes him stand out from other world leaders is the absolute power he exercises over his people, as shown in the hysterical cheers of North Koreans lining the streets of Pyongyang as the motorcade carrying him and Moon passed by.

North Koreans cheer as a motorcade carrying leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in passes through in Pyongyang on Sept. 18, 2018. (Yonhap)


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