‘Utmost dignity’ a two-way street

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‘Utmost dignity’ a two-way street

North Korea’s so-called “utmost dignity” is suffering a bitter blow in the Park Geun-hye administration. Whenever inter-Korean relations have gotten tense, Pyongyang has brandished it like a secret weapon.

But it doesn’t work anymore. At the Kaesong Industrial Complex meeting on July 10, South Korea’s chief delegate said to his North Korean counterpart, “You talk about us insulting your ‘utmost dignity,’ but we also have our own ‘utmost dignity.’” He was responding to the sophistry of the North Korean chief delegate who mentioned the insult to utmost dignity when Seoul demanded Pyongyang’s promise to not repeat the unilateral shutdown of the joint industrial park.

At a luncheon with chief editorial writers and commentators of major news media on the same day, President Park said, “They make an ambiguous argument with reference to dignity, but they are not the only ones with utmost dignity. People of the Republic of Korea also have the highest dignity.” President Park’s response must have been conveyed to the leadership in Pyongyang. A source who attended the meeting said later that the North Korean negotiators seemed to be surprised by the unprecedented response by the South.

The term “utmost dignity,” which refers to the supreme leader of the North, started when Kim Jong-il, then Chairman of the National Defense Commission, came into power after Kim Il Sung died in July 1994. Unlike his father, who seized power through a relentless power struggle, Kim Jong-il wished to underscore the authority of his leadership, as he may have thought his regime, compared to his father’s, lacked stability. That’s the irony of utmost dignity.

In the Kim Jong-un era, the utmost dignity claim became more frequent. North Korea justified its unilateral decision to close down the industrial complex in Kaesong by again resorting to “an insult on our utmost dignity.” They vehemently resented the criticism that the wages of the 53,000 North Korean workers at the park - about $80 million a year - flowed into Kim Jong-un’s pockets. Last month, Pyongyang called the disclosure of the inter-Korean summit meeting minutes, again, “a mockery of our utmost dignity.”

But the North’s strong rhetoric is losing its effect. As dialogue and exchanges resume, the demands for apologies to the descendent of the utmost dignity seems to have lower priority - as if the dignity issue was just an excuse for suspending the meeting or the park operation.

North Korea’s Workers Party leaders are experiencing a backlash against its utmost dignity. The utmost dignity of South Korea is not with the president but the citizens, who vividly remember the North’s harshest rhetoric, including: “No one would even survive to regret.”

It is time for North Korea to provide a clear answer to the 50 million-strong utmost dignities of the South, who are still perplexed by its sudden proposal of dialogue for resuming the industrial complex.

*The author is a political and international news writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

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