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2000 Inter-Korean Defense Ministers’ Talks



August 5 marked the 100th day of the adoption of the Panmunjom Declaration at the April 27 summit between South and North Korea. For the last 100 days, the South and the North have engaged in bilateral exchanges in an effort to turn a crisis into peace. The two sides have made remarkable progress in easing military tensions, in particular. In fact, it was the inter-Korean defense ministers’ talks in 2000 that provided a major watershed in defusing military tensions. On September 24, 2000, the North Korean military delegation, including minister of the People’s Armed Forces Kim Il-chol, crossed the Military Demarcation Line into South Korea to participate in the inter-Korean defense ministers’ talks. It marked the first time that the North Korean military leadership crossed the inter-Korean border to visit the South since national division. The North Korean delegation was greeted by Kim Hee-sang, lieutenant general and deputy head of the South Korean delegation. Today, we’ll hear from Mr. Kim, who now serves as the director of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs, recalling the historic moment. 

For the first-ever meeting between defense ministers from the two Koreas, we tried to treat the North Korean delegates as warmly as possible. In particular, Kim Il-chol, on his part, would set foot on enemy soil. Prior to the meeting, one of the biggest issues was whether I should salute Kim when I first met him. Of course, I was supposed not to. But if I didn’t, the atmosphere would be frigid. It was a big problem. When I came out to greet Kim, he had already been there, waiting for South Korean officials. I rushed to him and politely said, “Oh my, I’m sorry for keep you waiting.” I just shook hands with him, not saluting him. I thought he might be offended, since soldiers are sensitive about military etiquette. I wondered how to make him feel comfortable. When passing by the bridge in Imjingak Pavilion, my cell phone rang. That day, I happened to swap my phone with my son’s. It was a friend of my son’s who called me. I answered, “This is Jun-hyung’s father.” I thought the boy would hang up right away. But to my surprise, he asked me why I swapped my phone with his friend’s. Again, I said to him, “I’m doing something very important now. Call back later.” After I hung up, I said to Kim, “If I were the boy, I would hang up immediately. But these days, kids don’t care at all.” Kim burst into a laugh. He said, “Kids in Pyongyang are all the same.” The conversation loosened up the tense atmosphere quite a bit. 

Fortunately, the military officials from both sides of the border started their meeting with a laugh. The friendly atmosphere was stretched to the defense ministers’ talks in South Korea’s Jeju Island. The 13-member North Korean delegation arrived in Jeju Airport by a South Korean military aircraft and exchanged warm greetings with the South Korean delegation, including Defense Minister Cho Seong-tae. The historic first-ever inter-Korean defense ministers’ talks began at 10 a.m. on September 25. Here again is Mr. Kim. 

Following the June 15 Inter-Korean joint declaration, the entire South Korean society was filled with excitement, hoping for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula and a peaceful unification of Korea. So the meeting was held in a relaxed mood. The North Koreans said what they wanted to say, and so did we. We made various proposals to the North, such as establishing a military hotline, setting up joint military committees, notifying the other side of military training or movement of large-scale military units, and exchanging information. 

Aside from South Korea’s proposals that Mr. Kim just explained, the North Korean side demanded that two sides stop any military action that might hinder the implementation of the June 15 joint declaration and discuss how the militaries from the two sides would guarantee civilian border passages and cross-border exchanges and cooperation. The South and the North had aimed their guns at each other for half a century, but they put their heads together to find out ways to cooperate. After the first meeting session, the delegations toured the scenic Jeju Island. The North Korean delegates wearing casual clothes instead of military uniforms looked around some of Jeju’s famous tourist attractions such as Halla Mountain, the Mysterious Road and the historical site where a military unit of the Goryeo Dynasty fought the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. Mr. Kim continues.

Interestingly, the North Korean delegates pretended not to be surprised, even though they definitely seemed to be amazed at everything they saw in Jeju. For example, when they saw the Mysterious Road that creates an optical illusion of objects rolling uphill, they said, “What’s all the fuss about the road? It’s nothing special.” Seeing them, I thought that the South and the North could reduce misunderstandings or hostility at least if they meet more often. 

Touring the South Korean resort island together, the respected military officials from Seoul and Pyongyang were certainly able to narrow the gap between them. After the second meeting session on September 26, Kim Hee-sang announced a five-point joint press statement. 

South and North Korea agreed to try their best to implement the June 15 inter-Korean joint declaration. They also promised to make joint efforts to reduce military tensions and establish lasting and solid peace in the region. These are basic principles, and what the two sides really wanted to work on was to devise safety guarantee measures related to the re-linking of cross-border railways and roads. Working-level talks were also scheduled for October. It seems North Korea was greatly interested in this issue. Before the defense ministers’ talks took place, Kim Il-chol sent a letter to his South Korean counterpart Cho Seong-tae. In the letter, Kim expressed his hope that the two sides would discuss military issues related to the connection of the Gyeongui railway linking Seoul with Sinuiju and the construction of a road between Munsan and Gaeseong. 

The defense ministers shared the view on the need to continue to make efforts to reach agreements in the military area to ease tensions and ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula. For the construction of connecting the cross-border railways and roads, they agreed to allow people and vehicles to enter the Demilitarized Zone and guarantee their safety. On September 26, the delegations from the two sides visited South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. In the guest book of the presidential office, North Korea’s top military official Kim Il-chol wrote, “Let’s join forces for unification.” Unfortunately, this message turned to dust. 

Before Kim Il-chol came down to South Korea, the North requested us to maintain security and stop the South Korean media from reporting Kim’s visit. That was understandable because a South Korea visit itself by the North Korean minister of the People’s Armed Forces would be a great shock to North Korean citizens. I imagine the North considered holding the second defense ministers’ talks, as they said that the next meeting might take place at North Korea’s Mt. Baekdu. But the South Korean defense minister Cho insisted on Pyongyang as the venue for the next talks. If the military talks were held in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would have to meet the South Korean delegation, given that the North Korean delegation met the South Korean president at the first defense ministers’ talks. The North Korean media would certainly have to report the meeting between the top leader and the South Korean delegation. It was difficult for North Korea to accept the scenario, since it didn’t even want to report Kim Il-chol’s South Korea visit. After all, the North refused to hold the second defense ministers’ talks. 

The two sides agreed to hold the second defense ministers meeting in North Korea in November 2000, but the North later rejected the talks for administrative reasons. It was not until seven years later that the meeting was held. At the second defense ministers’ talks in Pyongyang in November 2007, the two sides adopted an agreement calling for a better inter-Korean relationship as well as peace and prosperity. But there were no follow-up talks for a long time. Of course, South and North Korea have held military meetings some 50 times since the first defense ministers’ talks in 2000 to take measures to reduce tensions. Still, the military leaderships of the two Koreas need to reach a bold agreement in order to build military trust and establish a peace regime. We’re looking forward to seeing the top military officials from both sides of the border on this divided peninsula discussing ways to promote peace very soon.

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