3 Simple Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From the Historic Meeting Between North and South Korea

The meeting earlier today between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in was something most of us never expected to see in our lifetimes. Whatever happens next, we should pause to take note of this historic event and the lessons we all can learn from it.

If you watched the video, it was a breathtakingly simple moment. An older, trim man stood waiting by a building on one side of a concrete barrier only a few inches high. A younger, heftier man strode confidently across a road and up to the barrier, reached his arm across it, and shook the older man’s hand. Onlookers applauded as the younger man stepped over the barrier and the two posed together for pictures. Then he took the older man’s hand and led him back across that same low concrete step. 

Afterward, there were many speeches, television, pictures with the leaders’ children, and champagne toasts. But that was the mind-bending moment when the leaders of North Korea and South Korea, two nations that have been at odds since North Korea’s founding 60 years ago, first briefly visited each other’s countries. Their encounter came with a lot of pomp and was met with a certain amount of skepticism from foreign relations experts in Japan, the United States, and many other countries who question whether North Korea will ever agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons.

But the two leaders had another surprise in store: They announced their intention to end the Korean War–officially going on since 1950, although in a cease-fire state–by the end of 2018. Whether they keep that promise or not, and really whatever happens next, there are some important lessons we can all learn from this emotional day.

1. Just because something bad has been going on for a really long time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it.

How many things do we just live with because it’s always been that way? Unless you’re a senior citizen, there has never been a time in your life when these two nations were not at war. Kim and Moon, who are 36 and 65 respectively, have both known the war as a constant from before they were born. And although the two nations have lived side by side relatively uneventfully since the cease-fire was signed in 1953, their navies have had skirmishes around their disputed border in the ocean and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two countries remains a tense place. A formal end to hostilities should have been signed 65 years, except that the various nations involved, which included the United States, the Soviet Union and China, couldn’t agree on terms. Signing one now would be a big step toward a safer, better world.

2. Talk is cheap.

The skeptics on both sides of the DMZ are skeptical for good reason. Although we’ve never seen anything quite like today’s events, the two Koreas have flirted with peace before but made little progress negotiating actual treaties. Experts everywhere foresee that North Korea won’t willingly give up its nuclear arms, although as a start, Kim has said he’ll forego building the long-range missiles that could reach the United States.

In the past, promising initiatives have been followed by negotiations that stalled for years, so the U.S. and South Korea are pushing North Korea to agree to deadlines for completing the process of denuclearization. So far, there’s no agreement to a deadline so the practial results of today’s meeting, if any, are hard to predict.

3. A little bit of progress is still progress.

Kim and President Donald Trump are planning to meet within the next few months. That would be another first: No sitting U.S. president has ever met face to face with a North Korean leader. (Former President Bill Clinton did meet with Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong-il, but that was long after Clinton’s time in office.) 

Moon and Kim announced plans to open a liaison office in the DMZ to improve relations. They also said they would arrange a reunion in the fall for Korean families separated by the war. Many of these family members will have been out of touch with their relatives on the other side of the line for decades. If nothing else, that’s a great reason to celebrate.

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Joan Guzman