Trust-building process shakenInter-Korean relations have never been steady, but this year they have been more rackety and rocky than usual. As soon as President Park Geun-hye took office on Feb. 24, North Korea went on the offensive. On March 5, North Korea declared it was dropping out of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. In the same month, it announced the North’s “Supreme Command” of the People’s Army has ordered its field artillery units, including long-range artillery and rockets, to go into combat-ready positions. On April 3, it restricted South Korean officials and businessmen’s traffic into the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and a few days later withdrew all of its workers from the joint-venture industrial park. On May 7, it threatened to turn the frontline islands in the West Sea into a sea of fire and conducted a long-range missile test and large-scale military drills.
At the command was Kim Jong-un, the not-yet-30-year-old, third-generation leader of North Korea. He blurted out violent rhetoric against South Korea when he visited army units in Wolnaedo, the units that attacked our Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. The Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the Workers’ Party, carried a photograph of Kim commanding a defense strategy meeting that was backed by a map showing a missile targeting the U.S. mainland. It was all part of a propaganda offensive to showcase a defiant young leader who doesn’t shrink at military pressure from South Korea and America.
The mood changed in the second half of the year. Seoul reacted strongly to Pyongyang’s hard play. It ordered all South Korean staff to move out of the Kaesong industrial park and warned it could close down the only remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), Pyongyang’s main organization for inter-Korean affairs, offered to negotiate reopening the complex in the North. After several breakdowns and hiccups, the two Koreas finally agreed on terms to resume business at the industrial park.
The Rodong Sinmun posted peacemaking editorials throughout August, calling for an end to the strained relations between the two Koreas and to replace them with reconciliation and unity. In August, Pyongyang even turned a blind eye when a group of South Korean activists floated balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
Pyongyang, however, changed back to hostility mode when talks on resuming the tourism program to Mount Kumgang and reunions of separated families broke down. On Aug. 29, the Defense Commission issued a statement criticizing a joint U.S.-Korea military drill and the leaflet balloons. The offensive rhetoric was unleashed from Pyongyang’s Worker’s Party and military mouthpieces. Throughout September and October, North Korea’s state-run media have been making saber-rattling noises several times a day.
Strangely, one statement from the CPRK and National Defense Commission was not carried by the Rodong Sinmun. It was an interview by the spokesman of the commission’s powerful policy department, when the interviewee bluntly and violently criticized President Park. The country’s official newspaper may also have decided that the language was inappropriate.
Pyongyang also has been taking pains to disparage President Park’s vision for a “trust-building process” - a solution to restore inter-Korean ties and establish a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. On Oct. 24, the Rodong Sinmun, in an editorial analysis page, listed reasons to accuse the trust-building formula of being an anti-unification policy that completely goes against improving inter-Korean ties and instead encouraged conflict.
Entering the second half, Kim Jong-un has kept comparatively low-key. North Korea has not made irregular military moves in the last couple of months and the Rodong Sinmun’s coverage of Kim has mostly focused on the rebuilding of the economy.
There are several factors behind this year’s ups and downs on the inter-Korean front. First, it can be attributed to the domestic factor in Pyongyang. Kim, who ascended to power after his father’s death two years ago, has been in a hurry to establish his own power base. Kim spent the first half of the year manifesting military boldness and defiance against the United States and South Korea and is devoting the latter half to economic affairs to send a message to his own people and the outside world that he is a leader capable of military and economic control.
Second, Kim is said to be a strong-minded person who hates to lose. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said the young leader is showing more confidence in his expressions and gestures than before. His youthful temperament and penchant for high-stake games added volatility to inter-Korean relations, he said. There are rumors that Kim no longer pays heed to his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, reportedly anointed by the late Kim Jong-il to help his youngest son consolidate his position after his father’s death.
Lastly, nuclear development has become a crucial factor in inter-Korean relations. North Korea has declared itself a nuclear state and unabashedly flaunts its progress at weapons development. In his New Year’s address, Kim pronounced equal priority to the economy and nuclear development, underscoring his confidence in the nuclear weapons program.
Given all these factors, inter-Korean relations won’t likely run smoothly in the future. Bilateral relations are not likely to pan out as envisioned by President Park through her trust-building process.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin