North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has written a rare letter to Seoul vowing to “frequently” meet Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, to discuss nuclear disarmament.
In the missive, described by South Korean officials as warm in tone, Kim pledged to pursue peace between the two countries and expressed regret that he had been so far unable to visit South Korea after Mr Moon invited him to do so in September.
But he expressed a strong will to visit the South Korean capital in the future and Mr Moon welcomed his overtures via his social media account. “If we meet together with sincerity, there is nothing we cannot achieve,” Mr Moon said.
The North Korean leader, long denounced as a dictator in the South, can expect a warm welcome from at least a section of the South Korean population if he arrives. In recent months fan clubs have sprung up to prepare a welcoming party for his visit.
Earlier this month, dozens of South Korean university students in black winter coats sat down on a frozen pathway in Seoul’s Maronie Park to discuss their unlikely new hero.
Clutching bunches of pastel pink rosebays, symbolising the sea of flowers that greeted Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, on his trip to Pyongyang in September, they broke into song.
“Let’s make reunification happen a minute sooner,” the students chanted, in a refrain referring to their political goal to see the Korean peninsula unified.
The meeting, attended by The Telegraph, was a stark reflection of the perceptional shift taking place in the South. “Until now, we did not know Kim’s true self. We only saw the media portrayal of him as an evil man!” one speaker said.
Such scenes would have been unthinkable in the South Korean capital one year ago.
Not only because Pyongyang was still threatening Seoul and Washington with the prospect of war but because the South’s National Security Act was prepped to jail anyone “praising, inciting or propagating the activities of an anti-government organisation.”
The enforcement of the 1948 law has been relaxed during President Moon’s 18-month-old administration as he pursues a diplomatic détente with Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons and missiles programme and bring peace to the peninsula.
The more tolerant political atmosphere has allowed at least a dozen civic groups – collectively known as the ‘Paektu Praise Committee’- to spring up as an unofficial welcoming squad for Kim’s planned visit to Seoul.
Although the confirmation and timing of his unprecedented trip has not yet been nailed down, the groups are already preparing. Some are learning the dance moves of a North Korean art troupe, while others are visiting schools to collect welcome messages.
At the Maronie Park event in mid-December, enthralled students watched a short drama about a local family excited about Kim coming to Seoul. “I like our Chairman Kim more than BTS!” yelled the family’s father, referring to a K-pop band that has stormed the global charts this year.
To one side, a pop-up photo gallery displayed highlights of 2018’s Korean diplomatic calendar – Kim and President Moon’s first meeting on the border in April, holding their hands in the air, smiling with their wives on a group trip to the North’s Mount Paektu.
“I believe the events we hold influence people’s reactions to Kim’s visit. Many people who didn’t really know about Kim’s visit see our event and learn more,” said participant Ha In-cheol, 23.
“We do receive many positive reviews. People write postcards saying ‘Welcome to the South’, ‘We hope you visit us soon’. We also sell stickers and badges welcoming Kim and many people buy them,” he said.
In a Telegraph interview, Kim Han-sung, 28, who heads up the ‘Korea Progressive University Student’s Union’, a branch of the praise committee, said the welcoming parties had been inspired in part by President Moon’s warm reception in Pyongyang.
“The people there welcomed him with the Unified Korea flag and flowers. We plan on doing the same thing when Kim comes here. We are also planning for a candlelight cultural festival, campaigns, and street performances to welcome him,” he said.
The groups are practicing songs popular with the North’s Samjiyon orchestra, a traditional music ensemble that performed at the South Korea Winter Olympics earlier this year. The orchestra’s greatest hits include “Let us run towards the future” and “We welcome you”.
“All these songs are very meaningful in the relationship of the two Koreas,” said Mr Kim.
But he admitted that, despite a generally positive public reaction to their street activities, pro-Pyongyang activists were coming under fire online. “We receive lot of attacks on the internet,” he said.
The rise of left-wing groups promoting positive engagement with Kim Jong-un has also sparked a backlash from conservatives which analysts say could erode public support for Mr Moon. The president’s ratings are already on a downward spiral due to the country’s economic woes.
Meanwhile, defectors who have taken shelter in the South after fleeing hardships and persecution in the pariah regime have also been left aghast at Kim’s sudden surge in popularity after long being portrayed as a ruthless dictator.
At the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) office in Seoul, some said they were baffled by the positive reactions to his planned visit, reported the Korea Times.
“I had a miserable life in North Korea, I was sentenced to one of the harsh prison camps. Later, after I was released, I escaped, but I got captured and sent back. Then my life in that living hell became even worse,” said Eunhwa, a woman who arrived in the South in 2015.
“I’m so surprised to hear South Koreans saying nice things about Kim Jung-un. It means they really don’t understand the evil to the north.”
Mikyung, a woman who escaped North Korea in 2016 said she was amazed at the South’s high expectations about Kim’s desire for peace.
“It should be clear to anyone who understands the regime that it is seeking survival on its own terms, not to compromise,” she said.
“He will continue trying to exert complete control over everyone within North Korean territory and maybe even the entire Korean Peninsula.”
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