THERE is an old saying about buses: you wait for one for ages, then two come along at once. The same may now be said of inter-Korean summits. On May 26th Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, and Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, added another surprise to a week already rich in them by meeting for informal talks on the northern side of the demilitarised zone between their two countries. The meeting came less than a month after the two men had vowed to bring about peace and “complete denuclearisation” on the peninsula during the first summit between leaders of the two Koreas in more than a decade.
Like the first summit, the impromptu meeting on May 26th featured a show of bonhomie. Pictures released by South Korea’s presidential office show the two leaders sharing a warm embrace after concluding their talks. “It was a meeting between friends,” Mr Moon said on May 27th. The two men agreed to hold a new round of working-level talks, which Mr Kim had cancelled the week before, on June 1st, and to arrange dates for military-level discussions and preparatory talks to reinstate family reunions.
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But the primary purpose of the talks appears to have been to salvage another meeting: a summit between Mr Kim and Donald Trump, America’s president, scheduled for June 12th in Singapore. The “peace process” instituted in April had looked all but dead two days previously when Mr Trump had concluded that hostile comments and other confusing signals from the North indicated a lack of seriousness, and so called off that summit.
Mr Moon said on May 27th that Mr Kim had asked to meet two days previously, after Mr Trump’s summit cancellation, suggesting that the North was spooked by the sudden volte face in Washington, DC. Mr Kim remained committed to the peace process and the “complete denuclearisation” of the peninsula, claimed Mr Moon, but was worried about the reliability of American guarantees for the security of his regime. That is the crux of the stand-off between America and the North: America wants “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation”, but Mr Kim seems to view nuclear arms as the only way to ensure his regime’s survival.
Mr Moon’s comments, which were echoed by Sunday’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, the North’s official party newspaper, suggest that Mr Kim remains keen on détente and particularly on the show of legitimacy that the Singapore summit would mean for his regime. His apparent worries about security guarantees suggest that he may indeed have been spooked by America’s talk of the “Libyan model” for denuclearisation. Depending on which American official is talking, the phrase means either that the North must disarm completely before it receives any benefits in exchange or that if the North does not disarm, America will see to it that he goes the way of Libya’s late dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, who was overthrown, dragged from a ditch, beaten and shot.
Apart from a renewed commitment to “complete denuclearisation”—a vague term also used in the declaration that followed last month’s inter-Korean summit—Mr Kim appeared to offer no new concessions. The mixed signals continue: the North’s official news agency put out a statement on May 27th deriding countries choosing the path of “compromise and concession” as “feeble-minded”. Compromising with “imperialists”, it said, was “little short of inviting one’s own death”.
Pressed on the denuclearisation question by reporters, Mr Moon said that the “roadmap” for denuclearisation would have to be worked out between America and North Korea, suggesting no progress had so far been made on that front. Nonetheless, Mr Trump appears mollified. The president had already floated the idea that the Singapore summit might still happen in a tweet on May 25th, before learning of the meeting between the two Korean leaders. Late on May 26th Mr Trump was sounding as if he had never cancelled anything: “It’s moving along very nicely. So we’re looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn’t changed. So, we’ll see what happens.”