There is symbolism in the carpet, meaning in the mango, significance in the walnut wood.
On Friday, the leaders of North and South Korea expect to meet for the first time on southern soil, a summit that marks the latest dramatic step toward peaceful relations only months after the two countries were on the brink of open hostilities.
The event is a high-stakes political conclave between a reclusive dictator of a nuclear-armed state and the President of a neighbouring state that fears those nuclear armaments threaten its very existence. At issue is the fate of a frail peace that has dawned anew in a place that has been one of the most tense on Earth.
But the summit is also a carefully planned piece of theatre, parts of which will be televised live, with every aspect of the leaders’ dress, furnishings and food examined in real time for what it might mean.
“It’s like the Oscars,” said Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies. Viewers will “see a lot of important people, including from North Korea,” he said. They will also see him: He is a television commentator and has been booked for hours on Friday, as national networks plan wall-to-wall coverage.
The 2018 Inter-Korean Summit has been built up complete with its own slogan – “Peace, a new start”− set pieces, corporate sponsorship and a cavernous press venue. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 3,000 journalists have registered to cover the event, more than the number of athletes in the Pyeongchang Olympics this winter. Nearly a third are foreign reporters, from 36 countries.
The Blue House, the South Korean presidential office, could find no record of having previously organized “an event at such a scale,” spokeswoman Song Jeong-hwa said. “Through this event, we are hoping that people all over the world can have an opportunity to witness this historic event, a yearning for peace on the Korean peninsula.”
The summit is “a heartwarming symbol of reconciliation. It’s not a working meeting, although it’s good that the leaders get to know one another,” said Jeffrey Lewis, one of the world’s top experts on North Korea’s nuclear program, who is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. But after an Olympics that was itself pregnant with symbolic joint athletic performances between the Koreas, the summit is being held as Seoul tries to “keep the good feelings going as long as possible.”
South Korean officials have curried an expectant atmosphere, with a steady release of planning details that demonstrate the extraordinary stagecraft involved. Kim Jong-un will enter a few metres into South Korean soil at Panmunjom, the heavily demilitarized Joint Security Area truce village where North Korean soldiers shot at a defector only a few months ago. It will be the third summit between leaders of the two countries, but the first not held in Pyongyang.
In the Peace House room where the meeting will take place, the carpet is blue to symbolize peace, the table is 2,018 millimetres wide to commemorate the year of the meeting and the wall is decorated with a large painting of Mount Kumgang, a North Korean site once open to South Korean tourists. The wooden furniture has been fashioned from walnut, a wood selected because it resists twisting and bending.
At dinner, Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will dine on North Korean cold buckwheat noodles, called naengmyeon; a Korean version of Swiss potato rosti in honour of Mr. Kim’s studies in Switzerland; dumplings with croaker and sea cucumber from Mr. Moon’s hometown; and a mango mousse meant to reflect spring’s energy.
The latter has already become its own international incident, after Japan on Wednesday demanded the dessert not be served because the mousse comes imprinted with a Korean peninsula map that includes islands whose ownership is disputed. In Seoul, however, Tokyo’s anger was only more fodder for the show, reinforcing the notion that the two Koreas were standing together against a common former colonist.
“They’re not just putting food on plates. They’re looking for symbols,” said Jennifer Flinn, a Seoul-based scholar and anthropologist who studies the cultural significance of food.
While that is partly savvy set-building, it’s also a matter of diplomatic necessity.
“Because of how sensitive everything is between North and South Korea and their respective allies, everything is going to be infused with meaning” by those watching, she said. So planners “have to think about every meaning” in advance, as a matter of exerting control.
That sort of forethought all but ensures that the summit is “going to be very successful, both in terms of appearance and substance,” said Joel Wit, who worked on North Korea at the U.S. State Department before co-founding the U.S-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“It’s not a negotiation. Summits are choreographed ahead of time.”
But “it’s not just a show, because if it was just a show then it would be a failure,” he said. “This isn’t just about image. It’s about politics. It’s about geopolitics. It’s about national security” − and about avoiding the catastrophic consequences of renewed war on the Korean peninsula. The summit will also serve as a precursor to the meeting expected in May or June between Mr. Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The sheer stakes involved add to the drama of the proceedings − and South Korea has done little to diminish expectations. “The South-North summit talks are expected to be a venue where [leaders] discuss the issue of denuclearization frankly and verify North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization,” Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Wednesday, in comments reported by Yonhap News.
She lent credence to reports that the two sides are working toward a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War, 65 years after fighting largely ceased. The two sides “will likely form a common understanding of the ways to institute peace, which could build a permanent peace regime to replace their unstable armistice regime,” Ms. Kang said.
The “bottom line to me is CVID – complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” said Yang Sung-chul, a former South Korean ambassador to the United States who is now a senior adviser to the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation. Because “the North Korean threat is now an existential threat not only for [South] Korea, but also East Asia and all the world,” he said.
The Globe and Mail, April 25, 2018