Five years ago, says Pyongyang, Seoul saw the lightPyongyang’s official media are now looking back fondly on the North-South Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000, which, to hear them tell it, has succeeded in uniting the Korean people against America.
It seems rude to celebrate the 5th anniversary of an agreement by making things awkward for the other party, but the North Koreans (as the Soviets found out) have always tended to treat their friends as unpleasantly as their enemies. It’s just a different kind of unpleasantness.
Still, when President Kim Dae-jung signed that declaration in Pyongyang, he must have hoped it would lead to a little more in the way of genuine good will. Koreans are one blood, after all, even if the “cultural exchanges” aimed at celebrating the fact ― like a recent fashion show north of the DMZ, where the South’s tallest and palest smiled down on tiny, nut-brown cadres ― only end up casting doubt on it. Besides, there’s just no comparing a vase or cuckoo clock to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid, much of it conveniently given in cash.
There’s also no denying that the past five years of Sunshine Policy have warmed the North a little. The official media no longer vilify the “government” in Seoul (though the ironic quotes remain in place); the fiery rhetoric of old is now reserved exclusively for its conservative opponents and their Yankee string-pullers.
And with South Korean videos pouring in over the Chinese border, and thousands of well-dressed Seoulites visiting Pyongyang, Kaesong and Mount Kumgang every month, the party newspaper has had to stop pretending that the southern half of the peninsula is an impoverished “hell on earth.”
But although these changes are not trivial, they hardly compare to the respectful media policy in South Korea, where newscasters now refer to Kim Jong-il by his full title of National Defense Council Chairman, and television coverage of life in the North seems limited to innocuous clips lifted from Pyongyang’s own broadcasts.
Like its deliberately humiliating demand that the South reduce its delegation to Pyongyang on June 15, the North’s gloating over the 2000 summit only underscores the difference in attitude.
The official propaganda version of things goes like this. Back in the 1990s, when the Yankees tried to thwart the North’s nuclear program with “strangulatory” sanctions, the workers’ paradise was forced to choose between the good life and national autonomy. Heroically, it chose the latter, bearing the ensuing “march of hardship” with a courage that inspired the world.
In the Yankee dependency down south, millions could walk tall again, secure in the knowledge that their brethren had preserved for them the dignity of the race. With Washington cowed into inaction, President What’s-His-Name and other southern representatives readily accepted the Dear Leader’s call to Pyongyang, and on June 15, 2000, the North and the southern part of the peninsula agreed to begin fulfilling Kim Il Sung’s long-standing guidelines for peaceful, autonomous unification. And in the five years since?
Despite complications in the internal and external political situation, thrilling things, according to the North’s media, have come to pass: There have been dialogues and contacts, and a series of communications back and forth, exchanges and visits from large delegations; severed roads and railways have been connected, and sea and air routes opened. The configuration of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula has been changed to one of the entire Korean people versus America. (A recounting of this version of events can be found in the May 8 issue of the Rodong Sinmun.) The South Korean people are also routinely urged to “raise the banner of June 15” and make this the year in which the Yankees are routed for good.
The interesting part of this propaganda is how it rails against America for urging the South to “adjust the tempo of economic cooperation” and for concocting the scandal about “money sent to the north” (that last part refers, albeit obliquely, to the revelations about taxpayer dollars sent from Seoul to Pyongyang just before the 2000 summit). In other words, the regime seems to be tacitly admitting that the South is not only no “living hell,” but is materially better off.
This reflects Pyongyang’s current shift from economic dogmatism towards a purely nationalist focus on the South’s alleged lack of autonomy. Having abandoned its old pose as the wealthier Korea, the North now positions itself as the guardian of the race’s dignity and independence, the better and purer Korea that will take all “cooperation” ― read tribute ― from the morally compromised South as its due.
The new line is brilliant, because it gives retrospective meaning to the masses’ “lost decade” while preparing them for the free-market reforms to come. At the same time, it appeals to many South Koreans’ secret pride in the North’s nuclear arms, and their nagging guilt about having sacrificed too much ethnic integrity in the drive for economic growth.
Anyone who doubts how well this is already working should follow the celebrations in Pyongyang this week, and behold the expressions on any North and South Koreans lucky enough to get close to Kim Jong-il. Make no mistake: the man really is a genius after all.
B.R. Myers, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, is a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly and has written about North Korea for the New York Times.