Timeless PR Lessons from North and South Korea’s Peace Summit

April 29, 2018 Public Relations 1 comment

History was made in the Korean Peninsula on Friday, 27 April 2018.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Moon Jae In signed a peace declaration to signify the end of hostilities between the two adjoining nations (and possible denuclearisation).

While leaders around the world are treating this milestone event between Kim and Moon with cautious optimism, we do know one thing for sure:

The North Korea and South Korea Peace Summit was a Public Relations (PR) coup of extravagant proportion.

Technically still at war, the two Koreas have only met twice since the peninsula was divided in 1948. Prior to the meeting, the world was rattled by nuclear tests conducted by North Korea, as well as the war of words between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

Spurred by the US, harsh trade sanctions by multiple countries were subsequently imposed on the reclusive “hermit kingdom,” virtually cutting off the lifelines from the impoverished North East Asian nation. This have been postulated by some to be the trigger for Kim’s peace overtures to Moon, which culminated in the monumental meeting.

Here are some invaluable PR lessons that we can bring home from this memorable and happy occasion.

#1 Choose The Right Venue

To set-up the historic event leading to the peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea, the Peace House on the South Korean side of the Military Demarcation Line in the truce village of Panmunjom was chosen.

Considered a “no-man’s land” between the two Koreas, Panmunjom is a mere 50 km north of Seoul and 10 km east from North Korean city Gaeseong. It is administered by the United Nations Command.

The village is divided between the North and South Korean side by a low cement slab that few dared to cross.

Here’s a short video showing how the place looks like.

The choice of having the huge painting of Mount Kumgang in the backdrop was also masterful, considering that the mountain located on the East Side of North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or  DPRK) was famed for its beauty.

#2 Field The Right Person

Avid followers of the real life Korean drama would have noticed the significant role played by Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong in the diplomatic dance between the two Koreas.

Ms Kim Yo Jong was the only woman present in the signing of the Peace declaration, and played a key role by giving her brother a pen to sign the guest book at the Peace House, and to hand him gloves for the later tree planting ceremony.

She first made her grand entrance at the Winter Olympics, enrapturing the world with her gentle demeanour as she became the first member of the ruling North Korean family to visit South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Simply and humbly attired, her charm offensive made North Korea the media darling during the games, and melted the ice between the two purportedly warring nations.

#3 Disarm with Verbal Charm

Reading the banter between South Korean President Moon and North Korean Kim, you’d imagine that they were close friends rather than bitter enemies. The chemistry between the two was palpable, as shown by the light-hearted and even humorous dialogue between the 65 year old Moon and 33 year old Kim.

Here are some samples taken from the BBC:

On Pyongyang’s nuclear tests

During a televised briefing

Mr Kim: “I heard you [President Moon] had your early morning sleep disturbed many times to attend National Security Council meetings. I will make sure that your morning sleep won’t be disturbed.”

On visiting North Korea

According to a South Korean spokesperson

Mr Moon: “While you come to the South, when can I possibly go over there [to North Korea]?”

Mr Kim: “Why don’t we just cross over now?”

(Mr Moon, in an unscripted moment, stepped over the line into North Korean territory)

#4 Use Warm Body Language

By being the first North Korean leader to step into the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Kim Jong Un made an unprecedented move – the first in 51 years.

While that alone would have been something worth celebrating over, what the two Korean leaders subsequently did was remarkable.

First, Mr Moon and Mr Kim shook hands for a breath-holding 22 seconds as they met each other for the first time. Kim, then invited Moon to walk across the Military Demarcation Line to go over into the North Korean side, holding the elder gentleman’s hand while doing so. They then returned to the South Korean side.

Have a look at these gestures for yourself.

Beyond this initial gesture, the two Korean leaders held each other’s hands and even hugged each other after signing the joint peace declaration. The temporary Moon-Kim “bromance” is shown by this short clip below.

#5 Enrich With Right Symbols

The world of political PR is full of icons, signs and symbols, and the peace event between the two Koreas was filled to overflowing with symbolic gestures, backdrops and locations.

When they walked on a red carpet specially rolled out for them, they were met by a traditional South Korean honour guard resplendent in colourful traditional costumes playing traditional music that were common to both sides.

Few could also ignore the amazing spectacle presented by Kim Jong Un’s running bodyguards beside his limo, symbolising the might and power of the supreme leader.

Beyond these grand gestures, we also read that Mr Kim brought a gift of cold noodles from North Korea for South Korean President Moon, and that both leaders posed with children in a photograph at the DMZ.

#6 Make Both Overt and Subtle Nudges

One of the most subtle yet overt gestures of public reconciliation made by the two leaders was their private chat on the footbridge in the truce village. I thought that this act was masterful as they were in full view of the media, which certainly went crazy capturing them in action while probably trying to figure out what they were talking about.

Courtesy of Reuters

Beyond this more overt move, I couldn’t help noticing how South Korean President Moon gently nudged his North Korean counterpart Kim during the signing ceremony. I thought that his gestures were not just convivial but kind and even fatherly towards the younger man.

#7 Give Credit to Others

While both the Koreas played the anchoring roles in bringing forth this peace process, it was interesting to read how some of the global leaders acknowledged the efforts of others.

Both Kim and Moon acknowledged the influence of the US and China in brokering the peace process, and agreed to a later 3-way or 4-way meeting involving the leaders of the superpowers.

US President Donald Trump also tweeted about the role of Chinese President Xi Jinping in making the peace process possible, as shown below.

#8 Deploy Soft Power of Culture

Last, but certainly not least, we should not discount the influence of sports, culture and entertainment in softening the frigid ground between the Koreas.

A key development here was the earlier fanfare surrounding the participation of the North Korean team in the recent South Korean Winter Olympic games, led by Kim Jong Un’s sister and rising political start Kim Jo Yong. Nobody would forget the amazing 230-strong cheering squad from North Korea, sent to support their 22 athletes.

Both Koreas also discussed the possibility of forming a unified Women’s Ice Hockey team.

At the peace declaration, Kim also brought along the DPRK’s top officials involved in culture, sports and humanitarian exchanges, symbolising his emphasis on soft power before going on to more concrete subjects.

A Positive Start To Everlasting Peace?

The peace process between North Korea and South Korea (and the world) is fraught with challenges and difficulties. There are many other barriers and obstacles that needs to be cleared along the way before denuclearisation and real peace can be achieved.

However, I believe that the historic peace event has signaled a major breakthrough in the relationships between North Korea and the world. With the careful maneuvering of the peace process, this initial process could usher in bigger peace talks between North Korea and the US – two nations which were almost about to “press the button” just a few months ago.

What other PR lessons did you uncover during the peace making process between the Koreas? I’d love to read your thoughts.

“There will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new era of peace has begun.” – Joint Statement by Mr Kim Jong Un and Mr Moon Jae In

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

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