The content of the “joint report” issued Monday by North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee and the Hyundai Group is somewhat more unconventional than what was originally expected. Analysts suggest it could be interpreted as indicating the North’s intention to bring the tone of inter-Korean relations into at least “management mode.”
The report makes it appear certain that North Korea’s primary goal is at the very least to normalize its cooperative projects at the private level. Among the five items listed in the report, all but the reunion of separated families are either projects pursued by the Hyundai Group or items in the existing agreement, including the resumption of the Mt. Kumkang tourism project, the undoing of limitations on passage, the resumption of Kaesong tourism and the commencement of a Mt. Paektu tourism endeavor. Tourism projects are well suited to shaping the overall atmosphere of inter-Korean relations.
According to observers, it is likely North Korea made the determination that even this much normalization of private cooperative projects between South and North would contribute to some degree in forming an atmosphere for dialogue with the United States. Both North Korea and the U.S. are currently in the process of lowering the threshold for dialogue. The U.S. has been demonstrating a more forward-thinking approach, especially since the North Korea visit on Aug. 4 and 5 of former President Bill Clinton. For example, on the conditions for halting sanctions, the U.S. has voiced the position that there “simply needs to be a political promise to participate in dialogue.”
Analysts are saying North Korea appears to have made the strategic decision to reduce the burden on chilly inter-Korean relations in order to form an atmosphere for negotiations with the U.S. “Fine-tuning North Korea-U.S. relations takes time, discussions and the formation of a proper environment,” said Hankyoreh Peace Research Institute head Kim Yeon-cheol. “In this regard, it is very meaningful in terms of forming an atmosphere for North Korea to normalize inter-Korean relations to some extent,” Kim added.
It is still unclear whether North Korea plans to use the normalization of inter-Korean private exchange in order to shift the situation once more toward talks between South and North Korean authorities and the total normalization of inter-Korean relations. In 2000, when the first inter-Korean summit was held, North Korea made an attempt to fully advance relations with South Korea and Japan with a focus on the North Korea-U.S. relationship. In the early 1990s as well, coinciding with the collapse of socialist governments in countries like the former Soviet Union, North Korea simultaneously pursued meetings with the U.S., discussions on diplomatic relations with Japan, and high-level talks with South Korea.
However, it is also expected that North Korea will use this normalization of private efforts in order to apply pressure on the Lee Myung-bak government to change its North Korea policy. In particular, the issue of reunions of separated families has significant appeal to public opinion in South Korean society. Analysts say it is a policy method that helps North Korea both in pressuring the Lee government to change its policy and in forming favorable public opinion within South Korean society. Including “reunions of separated families before the Chuseok holiday,” something outside of Hyundai’s purview, in the joint report could be called a message going beyond Hyundai to target South Korea‘s authorities.
The view among experts, however, is that the question of whether a step forward can be made from normalization in private exchange to full-scale dialogue between authorities depends on the position of South Korea’s authorities. In other words, there are limitations to what can be achieved as long as South Korean authorities show no clear intention of shifting from their current hard line on the North.
Meanwhile, North Korean media outlets such as the Rodong Sinmun were quick to share the “joint report” signed between Hyundai Group and the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. This prompt reporting on the joint report from North Korean authorities, who until now have been continuously criticizing the South and stirring up anti-South sentiment, is giving rise to speculation that North Korea may be slowly notifying its population of a shift in its South Korea policy.
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