North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives his televised New Year’s address on Jan 1. The address was broadcast at 9 am by North Korea’s official Korean Central Television. (Rodong Sinmun/Yonhap News)
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
On January 1, North and South Korea’s top leaders greeted the new year with two very different New Year’s addresses. President Park Geun-hye, who turns 62 this year, showed a reluctance to take proactive steps to improve relations with Pyongyang, attaching various conditions to the process. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is believed to turn 30 this year, demonstrated an active commitment to achieving the goal.
Toward the end of his address, which was aired on North Korea’s official Korean Central Television that morning, Kim mentioned improving inter-Korean relations a total of three times. He urged South Korea to “come forward in improving North-South relations” and said Pyongyang would “would actively to improve North-South relations.” He also said, “Anyone who values the nation and wants reunification will move forward regardless of what happened in the past.” This appeared to be an oblique reference to Park.
The reason North Korea is arguing so forcefully for improvements seems to be because relations remain so strained in spite of the efforts at dialogue it made last year. At the same time, Pyongyang also seems to desire stable relations with Seoul to preserve internal unity after the execution of onetime second-in-command Jang Song-thaek.
In the first half of 2013, inter-Korean relations seemed to be racing toward disaster, with North Korea’s third nuclear test, joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, North Korea’s talk of war, and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Then came Pyongyang’s unexpected proposals for dialogue with Seoul and Washington and agreement with the South to reopen the Kaesong complex. It was something of a recovery, although no progress was reached with reunions of divided families and tourism at Mt. Keumgang. Today, the prospects of improvement are looking grim, with Jang’s execution triggering more talk in the South about waiting from the regime in Pyongyang to collapse.
The content of the addresses suggests that a positive response from Park to Kim’s demands could be a boon for inter-Korean relations as 2014 begins.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said Kim showed “a proactive determination to set the mood for an improvement” in his address.
“There is a possibility the North could come out any moment with an offer for dialogue between authorities,” Yang said.
But Park’s four-page-long New Year’s statement, published the day before, showed her to be hesitant about taking steps to improve ties.
In it, the Park pledged to “establish an airtight security posture and a solid crisis management system for the eventuality of a North Korean provocation, while working more actively for peace on the peninsula and building a foundation for peaceful reunification.” The emphasis was more on strengthening security to gird for a possible provocation and working toward unification from a more long-term perspective than on making efforts to improve relations here and now.
Kim also said in his address that reunification should be “a matter among Koreans.”
“It is shameful toadyism and betrayal to take the issue of North-South relations to the outside and ask for international coordination,” he said at one point.
In addition to stressing “autonomy” in inter-Korean relations and showing Pyongyang’s feelings about being punished by the international community, the remarks also seemed to take aim at the Park administration’s attempts to use China’s influence to encourage changes in North Korea.
Park sounded a very different note on reunification, saying it should be “achieved in a way that benefits both sides, with the agreement of the neighboring countries involved” and pledging to “cooperate closely with the international community.” Her remarks reaffirmed the administration’s position in favor of leveraging the military alliance with the US and a strategic partnership with China to bring about North Korea’s denuclearization.
“If you just look at the 2013 New Year’s addresses, you can see that Kim didn’t make any reference then to improving inter-Korean relations,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. “This year, he mentioned it no fewer than three times, which is a sign of a fairly active commitment. It could be that conditions are somewhat favorable this year for pushing for inter-Korean dialogue.”
The Ministry of Unification’s political analysis division was more cautious in its interpretation. “While [Kim] did mention [creating] an atmosphere for improving inter-Korean relations, he also continued to denounce [South Korea],” it said. “We’ll have to watch and see how his attitude changes.”
One reason for the caution is the way North Korea’s promises and actual behavior have differed in the past. Kim’s address last year made reference to “reconciliation and unity of the Korean people,” only to be soon followed by a third nuclear test in late February.
The differing addresses by the leaders of South and North suggest that prospects for inter-Korean relations this year may be dim.
“The North and South Korean leaders are on completely different pages,” said Jeong Se-hyun, president of Wonkwang University and a former Minister of Unification. “North Korea is saying it’s willing to talk to anybody who desires unification, while the Park administration keeps insisting that everything needs to go through the government before it gets to the private sector.”
“The Park administration could decide to reject requests for interaction by South Korean private groups,” Jeong noted. “Relations with the North could get even worse than they are now.”
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