Actions speak louder than words

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Actions speak louder than words

In his New Year address yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un underscored the need for better inter-Korean relations. He urged South Korea to take reciprocal measures to end the malicious verbal attacks each side has repeatedly made against the other and pave the way for improved ties. In a remarkable departure from last year’s threats of imminent war, North Korea sent a conciliatory message to President Park Geun-hye in her second year in office, trying to turn around current tensions. We cannot rule out the possibility that Pyongyang genuinely wants to improve ties, including holding government-level talks this year.

Improved South-North relations are inevitable if Kim wishes to make the North an “economically prosperous country,” as he vowed. North Korea is still stuck in unmitigated economic hardship, along with power struggles and infighting among its elites. To rein in that alarming internal division, Kim needs a stable - and amicable - external environment. The stunning about-face may also reflect Pyongyang’s intention to comply with President Park’s call for dialogue and exchanges.

If Kim Jong-un wants substantial improvement in bilateral relations, it must be backed by action. Although Pyongyang used to highlight the significance of enhanced ties in the leader’s New Year speech or state-run newspapers’ joint editorials, there was never any concrete follow-up. Despite Kim’s mentioning of “easing the standoff” last year, Pyongyang pressed ahead with a third nuclear test and other bellicose moves, which exacerbated South-North relations.

The precondition for better inter-Korean relations is Pyongyang’s pledge to stop provocations and threats. If it attempts to take advantage of bilateral ties to ease internal conflicts, it will take a while to build mutual trust, genuine reconciliation or cooperation. We don’t want Pyongyang to use “better relations” as a means to incite internal division in South Korean society and disrupt the international community’s joint actions against the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Kim’s New Year address often emphasized the value of “solving problems by ourselves,” while denouncing “all the fuss over pro-North Korean forces in the South.” If Pyongyang really hopes for a full-fledged aid package, it must first demonstrate the will to denuclearize through actions, not words. As long as it adheres to the double track of pursuing economic and nuclear development, it will lead nowhere. Nuclear armament is the primary cause of its diplomatic isolation, and the stifling economic plight the North is suffering.
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