[Column] The answer lies in inter-Korean relations

Posted on : 2020-01-13 17:48 KST Modified on : 2020-01-13 17:48 KST
What is the “new path” that North Korea has declared?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee on Dec. 31, 2019. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee on Dec. 31, 2019. (Yonhap News)

North Korea has declared a campaign to break through its current situation with a “new path.” What sort of path did it take before adopting this “new” one? North Korea opted for dialogue and negotiations with the US, which took it to Singapore and Hanoi. The result of this, as North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs Advisor Kim Kye-gwan put it, was that Pyongyang ended up “deceived by the US, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half,” which was “lost time for us.”

The next question is whether the “new path” has a different destination in mind from Pyongyang’s “old path.” The very first resolution in the decision statement on the first agendum presented at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee concerned “rearrang[ing] the economic foundation of the country and enlist[ing] all possible production potentiality to fully meet the demand for economic development and people’s living.” The sixth concerned a vow to “strengthen the Party, the General Staff of the revolution, and radically enhance its leadership role.”

Once North Korea’s “five-year strategy for national economic development” comes to an end this year, it may embark upon a new set of 10 projected targets with an eighth WPK party representatives’ congress sometime around next year. While its “new path” may represent a different route, its goal of achieving economic development should be seen as unchanged. Over the course of no fewer than three meetings with US President Donald Trump over the past couple of years, leader Kim Jong-un has tried to achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear situation through a “top-down” approach.

Kim was not the only one going “all in” on improving North Korea-US relations. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also staked everything on the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea may be blasting the Moon administration now for “presumptuously meddling” in that relationship -- but if it was a mistake for Pyongyang to wager everything on its relations with Washington, then the Moon administration’s decision to stake everything on those relations should also be viewed as a mistake.

In a sense, the Moon administration has been bowing before the US in its hopes that Washington might straighten out its relationship with Pyongyang. The direction of inter-Korean relations would have been rather different had the Hanoi summit been a success. The Moon administration believed that if the Hanoi summit worked out, then the matter of the unconditional resumption of tourism at Mt. Kumgang and operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex announced by Kim in his New Year’s address last year would happen as a matter of course once the conditions were ripe. It may be correct to conclude that after pinning all their hopes on North Korea-US relations, both South and North ended up being hung out to dry.

During the plenary meeting, Kim said he would “never allow the impudent US to abuse the DPRK-US dialogue for meeting its sordid aim.” But the “sordid aim” in this case is not merely a matter of getting Trump reelected. The US is not prepared to agree fully to North Korea’s demands -- nor indeed could it be, in the sense of a larger strategy as opposed to “details.” With the US fueling the fire of its trade war with China, the likelihood of it “removing the kindling” now to fundamentally resolve the issue is basically nonexistent.

Washington most likely does not see itself as being in confrontation with Pyongyang

North Korea is said to now be sketching out a clear picture of confrontation, with its frictions vis-à-vis the US boiling down to a clash between self-reliance and sanctions. The question is whether the US also sees this as confrontation. In reality, Washington most likely does not see itself as being in a “confrontation” with Pyongyang. It isn’t interested in whether North Korea pursues a self-reliance approach or reforms and openness. If anything, it may welcome North Korea creating “problems.” As Kim Jong-un himself said, “If there were not the nuclear issue, the US would find fault with us under another issue.”

Is Pyongyang now poised to go at it alone, washing its hands of Washington and turning its back on Seoul? North Korea may have tried its best to figure out the US’ true aims, but it is unlikely to let go of its hopes for Trump. That’s the reason behind its message to South Korea advising against any “presumptuous” attempts to mediate. It is going to be looking ahead to a second term from Trump, doing what it can to influence his reelection. North Korea may be criticizing the Moon administration for bowing to the US, but it has not achieved its own aims by fighting with the US this whole time. South and North Korea have no choice but to cooperate to escape the larger shadow of the US’ East Asia strategy. The situation could change very quickly if Seoul commits itself with desperate determination to unraveling the knots in inter-Korean relations.

By Jin Jingyi, professor at Peking University

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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