[Column] The solution lies in inter-Korean relations, not N. Korea-US relations

Posted on : 2020-01-08 17:26 KST Modified on : 2020-01-08 17:26 KST
South-North dialogue has always been the driving force behind changes on the Korean Peninsula
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Dec. 31, 2019. (KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Dec. 31, 2019. (KCNA)

Reading the North Korean media reports about the 5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, I’m shocked to see how much has changed. The optimism and confidence that were evident in [Kim Jong-un’s] New Year’s address just one year ago have disappeared completely, replaced by a heavy gloom.

Last year, Kim delivered his speech with confidence and poise while sitting on a couch in his office. During that speech, he said he was ready to sit down with the US president and willing to unconditionally resume operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism at the Mt. Kumgang resort; this time, however, he hunkered down after reports about the plenary session and skipped the New Year’s address altogether. His remarks during the plenary session were filled with slogans such as a “frontal breakthrough offensive” and “self-sufficiency,” threats about a “new strategic weapon,” and fanatical resolve to “tighten belts” and never sell “our dignity which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life.” If anything, such language primarily evokes someone crouched down, licking their wounds.

If that’s all Kim intended to say, it does seem a little odd that he would hold a surprisingly long plenary session, lasting four days, at the end of the year. But I suppose it makes sense that the meeting would be prolonged under such grave circumstances and amid such uncertainty. Less than two years after shifting from the “two-track” of building a nuclear arsenal and the economy to focusing everything on building the economy, Kim found it necessary to make yet another change of course, and his apparent attempt to present that as the collective responsibility and decision of the party, and not of him as an individual, must have been inevitable in a country where the leader is said to be infallible.

When the rhetoric is stripped away, Kim’s point can be summarized as follows: we have to buckle in for a prolonged struggle with hostile external forces and find a way to survive. While that doesn’t bode well for affairs on the Korean Peninsula this year, it was basically a preordained conclusion, given the lack of any progress in the North Korea-US negotiations last year. After all, North Korea had promised that it would go down a “new path” when it failed to narrow its differences with the US over denuclearization.

It’s unfortunate that North Korea and the US failed to reach a compromise last year, especially since they apparently had an opportunity to do so. South Korea and the US reportedly come to some kind of understanding about exempting the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tourism from the sanctions, but that idea was rejected by North Korea. The North, it seems, wanted the sanctions to be eased through an ordinary, rather than an exceptional, process. What if North Korea had been flexible enough to accept that exception? If Mt. Kumgang tourism had resumed and the Kaesong Complex had reopened, could it have created new momentum for making progress on the Korean Peninsula? History doesn’t care about the “what ifs,” but I find myself lingering over that missed opportunity.

It’s even more disappointing because of a similar episode in the past. Even when North Korea had its transactions suspended after Banco Delta Asia was designated by the US as a “money laundering concern” shortly after the Sept. 19 agreement at the Six-Party Talks in 2005, it continued to insist on having deposits returned through the regular financial system rather than exceptional measures. In other words, access to the normal international financial network was more important to Pyongyang than the small change it had tied up in the bank. But the end result of this was that implementation of the Sept. 19 agreement was delayed for over a year -- a loss that translated into a shortage of negotiating time during the final days of the George W. Bush administration.

It’s fortunate at least that Kim Jong-un did not explicitly declare an end to negotiations, which means he has left the door open for dialogue. But it does seem apparent that restoring dialogue will be a taller order now than it was last year. To begin with, the impending US presidential election this November leaves Washington with less energy to focus on dialogue with North Korea. Given the possibility of a new administration being elected in the US, North Korea may also opt for a wait-and-see approach. Moreover, the sudden flare-up of conflict between the US and Iran recently has the US politicians’ and public’s attention focused now on Middle East issues.

Under the circumstances, inter-Korean relations could provide a way around. Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un has been paying little mind to that possibility. In retrospect, inter-Korean dialogue has always been the driving force behind changes in the Korean Peninsula’s geopolitics over the past years. Kim’s meeting with US President Donald Trump took place after an inter-Korean summit. In his New Year’s address on Jan. 7, South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested “identifying realistic ways of promoting inter-Korean cooperation.” Hopefully, Kim Jong-un will pay heed to Moon’s proposal.

By Park Byong-su, editorial writer

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