(Photo: Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps)

The joint declaration at the inter-Korean summit has made South Koreans more hopeful than ever before for peace on the peninsula. But, there’s still much to discuss.

SEOUL, South Korea – Around 6:00 pm KST on April 27, after nearly a whole day of inter-Korean meetings, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Kim Jong-un of North Korea released the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” Among other things, the joint declaration promised “no more war on the Korean Peninsula” and “a new era of peace.”

I heard the news just minutes after the declaration was made while meeting a friend in Seoul for coffee after work. “Holy s**t,” my friend muttered under her breath reading the notifications marked “Breaking News” on her phone screen.

“North and South Korea have agreed to finally end a seven-decade war, and pursue the ‘complete denuclearization’ of the Korean peninsula,” one notification read. Another stated “Breaking News: the Formal end to the Korean War will be declared later this year, 65 years after hostilities ceased, North and South Korean leaders agree.”

Expectations leading up to the inter-Korean summit

The summit between Moon and Kim marks only the third time North and South Korean leaders have met face-to-face since 1953. Yesterday’s events also mark the first time a North Korean leader set foot on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean War. But despite the historical significance of the inter-Korean summit, most people I knew, myself included, had few expectations for the meeting between Kim and Moon in the weeks leading up to the day. After all, the previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 had failed to bring about much progress in the relationship between the two countries, and though tensions had noticeably eased since the start of this year, it seemed there was still too much road ahead to declare that any real progress had been made.

Nevertheless I, and everyone I knew, was keeping close tabs on the summit preparations. Though South Koreans hardly blink when the North threatens us with “fire attacks,” and we silently scoff at the panic of the US whenever Kim tests yet another ICBM, our northern neighbors constantly remain at the back of our minds.

On one level, North Korea often seems like a detached foreign place to South Koreans: from our political ideology to technological advances to vastly differing culture, so many things in the North seem at odds with our lives here in the South.

On another level, however, North Korea is and always will be like a long-lost brother to South Korea. And this conviction seemed more evident than ever before through the interactions between the two political leaders in the inter-Korean summit.

inter-Korean summit
Analyzing Moon and Kim at the inter-Korean summit

Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in met at 9:30 am KST in Panmunjom, a village in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ. Over the divide between their countries, the two leaders shook hands and exchanged greetings for the first time.

Several reports claim that the moment the two Korean leaders shook hands, viewers starting clapping and cheering in South Korea. My aunt, who was a year old when the Korean war broke out in 1950, confirmed that she found herself doing the same thing as she watched the live broadcast.

The 12-hour summit yesterday was packed with big smiles and warm embraces between Moon and Kim. Those unfamiliar with Korean culture probably read the interactions as mere friendly exchanges. However, what Koreans understood as they watched the broadcast was something much more significant.

In Korea, exchanges of affection are usually limited to firm hand clasps or hardy pats on the back, and full on embraces are rarely exchanged even amongst family members. Hugs are reserved for rare occasions of genuine and intense heartfelt moments, and that’s exactly what the summit yesterday seemed like to those watching in South Korea.

Suddenly, Kim went from a military dictator with a long string of human rights accusations on his shoulders to someone who seemed to genuinely want peace between the two countries. Online, commenters even began to point out Kim’s cute smile and lovable chubby physique.

Perhaps the biggest thing the summit did for Kim Jong-un, who has up until now only been presented to the world through the lens of North Korean state broadcasts, was humanize him.

The friend who was with me when the news broke, a 23-year old office worker in Seoul, pointed out to me the significance of people hearing Kim’s voice for the first time in an actual conversation instead of a formal state address.

“It makes him seem like the legitimate leader of a country that has a normal and proper government,” she told me. “The fact that we can hear his actual voice for this long of a time is huge.”

“Koreans have always somewhat thought that Kim Jong-un might be different from his predecessors because of his education abroad, and the way he and even his wife acted at the summit sort of solidified that idea in their minds,” she continued. “The way he spoke to Moon, the way his wife Ri Sol-ju spoke for herself, [and] all of the interactions throughout the day between the two parties were just so new and fresh and interesting to see.”

Reactions To The Joint Declaration

But though those watching the live broadcast were optimistic about the direction of the summit as the day progressed, the joint declaration of a promise of peace and denuclearization on the peninsula still came as a shock to everybody around me.

From what I could tell in the weeks leading up to the summit, the most people had hoped for through the meetings was a mere easing of tensions and perhaps a joint cooperative effort in a sporting event in the near future. Surefire promises of denuclearization and an official end to the Korean war were mere pipedreams in the horizon.

Will North Korea keep its promises?

But despite the initial shock followed by hope and excitement from those in South Korea, various issues remain yet to be solved.

The joint statement after the summit included no specific details of how denuclearization would take place, nor did it specify a concrete first step to fulfill the promises that had been made.

Right now, both President Moon and South Korea are taking Kim at his word. But, North Korea has a history of pledging peace and brotherhood and not following through on its promises. The previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 also had Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, sign promises of peace, yet nuclear programs and military provocations had continued as if nothing had changed.

However, multiple people around me in South Korea have told said that though they know promises have been made and quickly broken in the past by North Korea, they can’t help but feel tentatively hopeful looking ahead.

“All the previous inter-Korean summits have involved a bunch of pretty words followed by no tangible change, but Kim’s rhetoric seems different this time around,” one friend told me. “I would be so happy if things happened and changed, but then again I wouldn’t be shocked if he didn’t follow through [with his promises].

“It does feel different this time though,” she continued.

The general attitude amongst South Koreans right now seems to be timid hopefulness paved over a thin layer of skepticism. A lot of things are happening very quickly, and it is difficult to tell whether the current promises and events can and should be trusted.

Demonstration just across Seoul Plaza against the inter-Korean summit
inter-Korean summit
Demonstration just across Seoul Plaza (and flower arrangement), right in front of Deoksugung Palace.  Around a dozen individuals (age: 60+ years old)
Organizing group: TRPMC (???????????) (website link: http://www.trpmc.kr/) — a small right-wing group in South Korea composed of mostly people 60+ years old. Supports former President Park Geun-hye, pushes for a strong alliance with the US, and opposes talks and relations with North Korea

Near Seoul City Hall the day following the declaration, my mother and I passed by Seoul Plaza, on which plots of grass have been replaced with flowers to resemble the shape of the unified Korean peninsula in celebration of the inter-Korean summit.

Across the street we saw a demonstration hosted by a small but vocal right-wing group, mostly comprised of those in their 60s and older, that promotes strong alliances with the US and opposes talks and relations with North Korea.

“Back off Moon Jae-in, who puts North Korea and China ahead of South Korea’s survival,” one banner at the demonstration read. Another stated “Immediately release the guiltless Park Geun-hye,” referring to the arrest and recent prosecution of former president Park who was sentenced to 24 years of jail time for charges of corruption, abuse of power, and coercion by Seoul Central District Court.

Shaking her head, my mother looked somewhat irritated by the demonstration but quickly changed her tune as she turned to me and said, “today is a happy day. Right now, the whole world is looking at Korea.”

When Moon was elected into office in May 2017, one of his biggest campaign promises was easing tensions between us and our Northern neighbor. A year ago, many laughed at Moon’s seemingly ridiculous ambition.

But now, nobody is laughing anymore. Though many are skeptical of Kim’s sudden change of heart, and there remain many details and questions that have yet to be settled, South Korea seems more hopeful now than ever before for peace on the peninsula. And after 65 years of war, that hope means something.

Yeji-Jesse Lee

Yeji is covering the White House.