SEOUL – The youngest son of former President Kim Dae-jung is one of just a few South Koreans to have met Kim Jong Un. He hopes a second meeting isn’t far away.
Six years ago, Kim Hong-gul chatted with the current North Korean leader as part of a visiting delegation attending the funeral of late dictator Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. He’s now looking for another encounter after he becomes head of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, a nonprofit group that promotes exchanges between two Koreas.
In a Dec. 1 interview, Kim Hong-gul said that a new era of reconciliation might be possible after North Korea declared that it completed its nuclear force. Kim Jong Un made the announcement following the launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile with improved technology that he said can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S.
“It could be a flare signaling the start of the negotiations,” said Kim Hong-gul, who is tapped to take on the position next month. “On completion, Kim wouldn’t need to test missiles anymore, so he could suggest a conversation with the South and the U.S., possibly in his New Year speech, while refraining from further tests.”
While the U.S. has long maintained that North Korea must be willing to abandon its nuclear program for talks to begin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month he can envision having a conversation ahead of formal negotiations. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Pashin, who recently visited Pyongyang, said Monday that North Korean officials are ready for one-on-one or multiparty talks now that they’ve become a nuclear power capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, was on Tuesday to begin a four-day trip to North Korea. He was set to meet Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and other officials on the visit that follows an invitation from Pyongyang, the U.N.’s department of political affairs wrote on Twitter.
Kim Hong-gul said the U.S. and North Korea could both save face by talking to each other now, as the world doesn’t yet believe Pyongyang has completed its nuclear program. Questions remain over whether a warhead could survive reentry into the atmosphere and target specific locations.
“Both can say to their people that the other surrendered and came to the path of dialogue,” Kim Hong-gul said.
North Korea so far has rebuffed South Korea’s attempts at talks, and has repeatedly said it won’t give up its nuclear weapons unless the U.S. drops its “hostile policy.” The U.S. and South Korea on Monday began a large-scale military exercise involving 230 aircraft, a drill that prompted North Korea to warn of “the highest-level hard-line countermeasure in history.”
It’s unclear whether Kim Hong-gul would be able to bridge the gap between the two sides. His father was a democracy activist who rose to the presidency after surviving assassination attempts and a death sentence. He became South Korea’s sole winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his so-called Sunshine Policy that attempted to defuse tension on the divided peninsula.
Kim Hong-gul hopes to carry on his father’s work. He said that he last talked with North Korean officials three or four months ago to present ideas for resuming exchanges, including sending an animal in danger of extinction to a zoo in Pyongyang.
Diplomats and analysts see Kim as a strong candidate should South Korean President Moon Jae-in decide to send a special envoy to Pyongyang, in part because he has a direct line with officials in North Korea. Means of communication such as military hotlines were cut off by the more hawkish administration of former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached earlier this year.
Kim Hong-gul recalled the time he met the North Korea leader, who was then in his 20s.
“Jong Un stood out because of his skin that looked as flawless as white jade,” he said in the interview. “The first impression that struck the entire world including myself when he first appeared was that he looked too young to rule. But as it turns out, we all probably underestimated him as a leader.”
While United Nations sanctions make it difficult to restart inter-Korean exchanges, Kim Hong-gul sees room for others to play a role. He said sending food and medicine to children in the impoverished nation could be a good start.
Kim Hong-gul said his father created the reconciliation council 20 years ago to do things that government officials can’t undertake. The entity has a counterpart in North Korea with the same name.
“It’s repeating,” he said. “State-to-state communications are cut off, so this is the time for the private sector to play a role to defuse tensions.”