Spotlight turns to Hyundai Group Chairwoman’s visit to North Korea

Posted on : 2009-08-11 10:40 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
While some analysts are watching to see if Hyun can secure a release for Yu, others say President Lee’s 8.15 address determines if cooperation remains at the private level
 the chairperson of Hyundai Group
the chairperson of Hyundai Group

Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, arrived in Pyongyang on Monday, after traveling over land on the Gyeongui highway. Analysts are noting that her visit marks a strong possibility for the beginning of a solution to the detention of a Hyundai Asan employee, identified by the surname Yu, who has been held in North Korea since March 30.

Attention is focusing in particular on whether Hyun gets an audience with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during her visit, which is scheduled to continue through Wednesday. If she does get a meeting with Kim, observers are interested to see the kind of attitude he demonstrates on either the issue of Mr. Yu’s detention or the resumption of Mt. Kumgang (Geumgang) tours that have been halted since July 2008, and at tourism projects at Kaesong (Gaeseong) that have been halted since December 2008. Some optimistic observers are saying the outcome of Hyun’s visit might even be able to serve as a starting point in improving the relationship between South Korean and North Korean authorities, which has deteriorated since the Lee Myung-bak government took office.

Prior to leaving for Pyongyang through the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office at Dora-san in Paju located in Gyeonggi Province on Monday afternoon, Hyun fielded questions from reporters about whether Yu might be released. “I will work so that that happens,” she replied. In response to a question about the possibility of discussing the resumption of Mt. Kumkang tours, she curtly replied, “I will have to go there to find out.”

The view among experts is that a resolution on the issue of Yu’s detention, which has been weighing down inter-Korean relations, will be reached. The mere fact that North Korea accepted Hyun’s request to visit is being viewed as an indication that it does not intend to drag the issue out further.

Observers are saying that a major factor behind North Korea’s decision to provide an opening for resolving the detention issue appears to have been the visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang on Aug 4. During that visit, Clinton made a direct request to Kim Jong-il that both Yu and the crew of the Yeonan 800 be released. Some are analyzing that North Korea might feel the need to grant Yu’s release after deciding to pardon the two U.S. journalists in order to provide favorable conditions for entering into dialogue with the U.S.

Other factors making it difficult for North Korea to continue dragging out Yu’s detention include the fact that his investigation period lapsed on Monday according to North Korean criminal law, and a growing number of South Koreans are voicing criticism that the U.S. journalists have been released while Yu remains in detention.

Observers are also saying there is a strong chance that North Korea will demand an apology from South Korean authorities and a pledge to prevent incidences like this from reoccurring, just as it did when the U.S. journalists were released. In other words, harmony may be possible with something along the lines of a delivery of an official expression of regret and a neutral message about the two Koreas working together to prevent the same kind of thing from happening again.

It is difficult to make any predictions yet on whether a solution to Yu’s detention will create an “entryway” for a full normalization of inter-Korean relations. There are several thorny issues remaining between South Korea and North Korea apart from Yu’s detention, including the standstill in the Mt. Kumkang and Kaesong tourism projects, controls on passage to and from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the suspension of support to North Korea from South Korean authorities. Among these issues, Hyun can make a priority of discussing the resumption of tours to Mt. Kumkang and Kaesong, which are Hyundai Asan projects. On the latter issue, although North Korea had blocked the tours to Kaesong, South Korea had halted the Mt. Kumkang project and is demanding an investigation into the shooting death of a tourist last year and a promise that such an incident will not happen again. North Korean authorities, meanwhile, are demanding fulfillment of the June 15 and October 4 declarations.

Observers are interpreting North Korea’s invitation to Hyun as displaying both an intention to manage inter-Korean relations and an attempt to cultivate benefits of “limited communications with South Korea amid communications with the U.S.” in lieu of “communicating with the U.S. and shutting out South Korea.” There is, however, a strong possibility that North Korea will decide whether to take a position of maintaining economic cooperation at the private level while continuing antagonism at the government level, or else move towards thawing relations between authorities as well. Analysts say it is likely that North Korea will be paying close attention to the content of President Lee Myung-bak’s celebratory speech for the Aug. 15 Independence Day holiday.

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