Pyongyang and Tehran

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Pyongyang and Tehran

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not be happy with his status on the global stage these days. Pyongyang had hoped to wriggle out of strangling UN sanctions by returning to bilateral talks with the United States and multilateral negotiations with six nations. But Washington’s primary concerns have veered away from Asia, the Korean Peninsula and North Korea. During his first term, President Barack Obama championed the Pivot-to-Asia policy, and after he won his second term, his administration steered decisively toward the Middle East. What has been known as Washington’s “strategic patience” toward North Korea is turning into a “strategic neglect” as Palestinian and Syrian issues dominate foreign affairs in Washington today.

Kim may also be nervous about losing North Korea’s important partner in its nuclear weapons program - Iran. Iran is known to have played a key role in North Korea’s progress in nuclear weapons and missile technology. Iran is suspected to have witnessed North Korea’s nuclear development from the early stages by sending observers since its first nuclear test in 2006. However, the cozy relationship may come to an end now that a more moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has come into office. In a series of interviews and op-eds pegged to his international debut at the UN’s annual General Assembly in New York, Rouhani said Iran was ready to make an agreement “in a short period of time,” some kind of nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers. He also mentioned that a settlement on disarmament could be reached within the year.

Such compromise was unthinkable under anti-American predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose belligerence often disturbed peace in the Middle East. Rouhani indicated his new diplomatic turn has the backing of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on state matters, and that he could contain the political involvement of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force within the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, which resists any compromise with the West.

Rouhani’s high-profile outreach has eclipsed the news of Pyongyang’s cancellation of much-awaited reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War. In contrast to the global praise for the new Iranian president, Kim drew criticism for causing disappointment to elderly citizens on both sides of the border after raising hopes for a reconciliatory mood since reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex after months of closure. Kim won’t be able to make amends unless he changes. He should know better that threats and provocations won’t work with the Park Geun-hye government.

The editorials and statements through the mouthpieces of the North Korean Workers’ Party - the Rodong Sinmun and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea - suggest the real reasons behind the change in course in Pyongyang. North Korea appears to have been enraged by the fact that all the kudos for the reopening of the joint-venture park in Kaesong went to South Korean President Park. The media lauded the president’s North Korea policy of conviction and consistency and said it ultimately drew concessions from Pyongyang. The Seoul government was so busy congratulating itself on the breakthrough in inter-Korean relations that it failed to pay attention to the feelings of the other party.

The young leader in Pyongyang is reportedly instantly connected with what goes on in the South through the Internet. Kim may have felt the painful pang his father Kim Jong-il felt when former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung picked up the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the historic inter-Korean summit after reading all the news crediting President Park Geun-hye for her role in breaking the ice between the two Koreas in regards to Kaesong.

Pyongyang may have suspected Seoul would pull out of talks on resuming tours to Mount Kumgang after the reunions of the separated families were over. The Park administration’s vision of building a trust process to establish peace on the peninsula may be far-fetched considering the scant amount of faith Pyongyang has in Seoul. But Pyongyang’s reaction is understandable as a top South Korean government official’s remarks - that Seoul has no plan to resume tourism to Mount Kumgang in the near future - must have been heard in the north.

North Korea has been hoping that the family reunions would lead to a reopening of the cash-generating resort and tour programs in Kumgang that have been ended since the killing of a South Korean tourist in 2008. However, a senior government official was quoted last week as saying Seoul was still studying the terms for lifting the ban on travel to the North and that inter-Korean relations have not fully restored to the extent of allowing tours there. If the official’s comment had any weight, it would be shocking to North Koreans as it suggests that Seoul is not ready to normalize ties with Pyongyang.

What is crucial to the resumption of the tours is the safety of our tourists. North Korean officials delivered Kim’s message promising a safety guarantee for tourists when Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Asan, which operated the resort and tours, visited the scenic mountain in the North in August. But Seoul wants a written, government-level guarantee. The Park administration isn’t keen on the kind of informal meetings and accords that are sometimes necessary to settle complicated deals. Won Dong-yeon, deputy chief of the United Front Department, which is in charge of unification policy in North Korea, told a visiting Korean-American scholar last summer that Pyongyang was ready to meet anyone representing the South Korean president in China regardless of his or her status. But Seoul ignored the offer. Pyongyang eventually agreed to reopen the Kaesong complex without any preliminary secret meetings. But that doesn’t mean such an approach will work in other inter-Korean affairs just because it succeeded in the Kaesong case.

If Iran’s nuclear weapons program could be stopped through diplomatic efforts, it could raise hope for a similar breakthrough in regards to the North Korean nuclear program. Kim must open his eyes and face the music: Washington’s re-pivoting to the Middle East and a reconciliatory mood between the United States and Iran. Seoul needs to find a balance between principle and reality. We hope that the rigidity and disconnect of President Park - which has greatly impaired her recruitment of top government officials and relations with the political sector - won’t stretch beyond the border.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Kim Young-hie
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