[Editorial] N. Korea needs to focus on inter-Korean dialogue instead of just criticizing S. Korea

Posted on : 2020-06-08 16:18 KST Modified on : 2020-06-08 16:18 KST
Young North Koreans protest South Korea’s propaganda balloon launches in Pyongyang. (Yonhap News)
Young North Koreans protest South Korea’s propaganda balloon launches in Pyongyang. (Yonhap News)

North Korea is intensifying its criticism of South Korea over defector groups launching balloons carrying propaganda leaflets over the border. Pyongyang’s criticism began on June 4 with a statement by Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and continued with a statement by the spokesperson of the WPK United Front Department on June 5 and coverage in the WPK’s official organ the Rodong Sinmun and in propaganda media aimed at South Koreans on June 7.

Even though South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) quickly said that the government means to find a legal way to stop the balloon launches on the very day that Kim Yo-jong released her statement, North Korea’s criticism has been growing harsher each day. North Korea had expected a lot from the South after their three summits in 2018, and now it appears to be seriously disappointed in Seoul for wasting precious time by throwing up its hands and giving up initiatives that the US refuses to approve.

The onslaught of criticism against South Korea also appears to have a political objective — namely, shoring up unity inside the North, which is facing an economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But even granting such factors, it’s extremely disturbing that North Korea is resorting to such abusive language against the South for days on end. Such behavior is unlikely to build support in the South Korean public and will only reinforce negative attitudes about the South Korean government’s tolerant attitude toward the North.

One notable aspect of the recent situation is the prominent role taken by Kim Yo-jong, who was described as being in charge of South Korean affairs by a statement from the WPK United Front Department. That appears to be a message to Seoul that any attempts to improve inter-Korean relations will have to go through Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. South Korea and the US have reportedly been focusing on the fact that North Korea’s position was expressed through a statement by Kim Yo-jong and think that the change in her status and gravitas should not be disregarded.

Some regard North Korea’s recent behavior as representing a demand to create the basic conditions and environment for improving inter-Korean relations. Ending the launch of propaganda balloons was already part of South and North Korea’s Panmunjom Declaration and Comprehensive Military Agreement, both reached in 2018, and has nothing to do with the international community’s sanctions on the North. The implication is that North Korea may regard the propaganda balloon issue as a litmus test for inter-Korean relations moving forward; in that case, Pyongyang should approach Seoul with greater candor and engage in inter-Korean dialogue.

The South Korean government needs to manage the situation carefully to ensure things don’t get worse. The first step is to halt the propaganda balloon launch that’s scheduled for June 25. On June 5, a group of city and county mayors from border regions visited the Unification Ministry and asked Minister Kim Yeon-chul to prevent defector groups from launching propaganda balloons, which they said could inflame tensions along the border. It’s time for some sober realization from both governments that the propaganda balloons and other issues related to inter-Korean agreements ought to be resolved not through threats and criticism but through close contact and dialogue.

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

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