When a very senior North Korean delegation led by Hwang Pyong-so arrived in Incheon on short notice on Oct. 4 for the end of the Asian Games, many observers gasped. That Hwang and his colleagues visited was surprising in itself - unannounced senior visits are not Pyongyang’s style - but the way they carried out their mission was even more surprising. They arrived in Kim Jong-un’s private aircraft and were accompanied by bodyguards (smartly dressed and wearing identical ties). These are honors normally bestowed only upon Kim Jong-un himself, so why were they accorded to Hwang?
Hwang’s visit was not the only surprise that the DPRK has sprung on the world in recent weeks. Unexpectedly, some long-held and fiercely defended North Korean positions have recently started to change. After a break of 11 years the DPRK has offered to restart its human rights dialogue with the EU. Also, a DPRK official has admitted in a UN meeting that his country has “detention centers” where miscreants can reflect on their errors. This falls short of an admission of the existence of reform through labor camps, but to talk in public about any aspect of its penal system is a significant change in DPRK policy - perhaps, at last, the DPRK is prepared to discuss this taboo subject.
Finally, and importantly, in three separate meetings with Western experts, DPRK officials have said that their country would not use nuclear weapons first, thus effectively promising not to launch a nuclear strike unless the DPRK is attacked. This is a big and very welcome policy shift in an area of great sensitivity for the DPRK. It is important that the international community now locks the DPRK into this policy. (For this it will need to find a way to avoid recognising the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state.) To do so would be a significant step forward in regional and world security.
For several weeks it seemed that Kim Jong-un’s absence was more surprising than any of these other events. But now that he has reappeared, limping and with a cane, it seems that his absence was mainly due to medical treatment for a problem with his legs (Gout? Fractured ankles?). So although it is not clear why Kim Jong-un was absent for so long it now seems unlikely that his temporary absence will have a long-term significance for developments on the Korean Peninsula.
How much do North Koreans know?
As a side note, it is interesting to see how the regime presented the sensitive question of Kim Jong-un’s absence to its own people. North Koreans with access to a television knew about his absence because they saw that he stopped appearing on their screens and they heard the announcement that he was suffering physical discomfort. But North Koreans without access to a television - most of the poorer people in the impoverished country - rely on normal radio broadcasts and on the Third Channel for their information. On these media channels there was no hint of any change and references to Kim Jong-un’s greatness and goodness in leading his people continued. This means that, although the outer elite of Pyongyang (who have access to televisions) knew that Kim Jong-un was unwell, much of the rest of the population was not told. Perhaps the regime felt that this kind of information could only be shared with those of whose loyalty it was confident.
When the news does enter the circuit I think that there will be some anxiety amongst North Koreans because in North Korea change - and especially political change - has often been bad news. But also I think there will be some hope that the inter-Korean talks might hasten the day of national reunification. North Koreans I knew ardently desired reunification because they saw it as a liberation from their poverty. I suspect therefore that information on the progress of talks will be avidly sought in Pyongyang.
What is happening?
So what is going on? Nobody outside the DPRK knows for sure, and I doubt that most North Koreans, even in Pyongyang, know either. But I think some parts of the picture are becoming clear.
To understand recent events, it is important to remember that, angered by the DPRK’s third nuclear test in February 2013, China changed its aid mix to the DPRK, for example removing cash from the package. It also cooled the political relationship with the result that Kim Jong-un has never visited Beijing. The relationship deteriorated further with the execution of Jang Song-thaek, whom China had seen as a friend at the court of Kim Jong-un. It is likely that Chinese companies, noting this cooling, have become more reluctant than before to invest in the DPRK, thus magnifying the economic impact of China’s irritation.
So the DPRK needs to replace the funds that it has lost through these changes in Chinese aid and it wishes in any case to break its economic dependence on China. It has therefore been trying to find new economic partners. There have been talks with Japan over abductees, probably in the hope that these might lead to compensation from Japan for World War II or at least to an easing of Japan’s bilateral sanctions against the DPRK. There have been talks with Russia, from which the DPRK hopes for large investments. And senior DPRK officials have toured Europe, again looking for economic links. A friend who visited North Korea in late September told me that North Koreans were talking excitedly about a Japanese and a Russian bonanza.
It is very likely that these hopes will be dashed. Talks with Japan will take a long time and Japanese officials have been hinting that in any case a resolution of the abduction issue would be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the normalization of relations and possible payment of compensation. Meanwhile, Russian businessmen have been making clear that they will only invest in North Korea if they see solid opportunities and if their investments are properly protected. (Corruption by DPRK officials has plagued previous investments in the country.) The mission to Europe had difficulty in securing high-level meetings, let alone improved aid or trade.
So the DPRK’s apparently sudden decision to renew inter-Korean dialogue was probably prompted by the hope that South Korea will provide the funding it is no longer getting from China and that it is not likely to get from anywhere else. The choice of a man of Hwang’s seniority as an envoy and his use of Kim Jong-un’s private aircraft signal the DPRK’s eagerness to re-engage with the ROK. This means that, although the dialogue has been postponed because of the exchange of fire on Oct. 10, it is likely that it will nevertheless start after an interval - when the DPRK is likely to ask the ROK for substantial economic concessions. It is significant, too, that military talks at Panmunjeom seem to have restarted on Oct. 15 after a seven year break. That these talks broke down after five hours with little or no agreement is neither significant nor surprising. There are huge differences between the two sides that will take a long time to resolve. The point is that the talks again demonstrate the DPRK’s willingness to re-engage with the ROK.
The decision to admit the existence of detention centers and to allow a restart of the EU-DPRK human rights dialogue probably comes from the same economic imperative. The DPRK was stung by the recent UN Commission of Inquiry report on its human rights abuses and may have realised that it needs to improve its human rights reputation worldwide in order to have any chance of attracting investors and trade partners, let alone aid. The DPRK probably hopes that by talking to the EU it can get some feel for what it needs to do to eliminate this obstacle to fulfilling its economic needs.
There was another note to Kim’s reappearance on October 14. The DPRK media announced that he visited a compound for scientists. In fact, the building shown was accommodation for scientists and technicians who prepared the DPRK’s last missile launch (so not civilian scientists). Kim Jong-un ordered the building’s construction and had visited it previously. He was signaling that, despite all these moves to re-engage with the world, there remains a hard edge to DPRK policy. The exchanges of fire across the maritime border on Oct. 6 and then across the land border on Oct. 10 sent the same message. Kim Jong-un is saying that he is looking for a more constructive relationship with the outside world, but that the DPRK has other options, too.
Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe has said that the best way to deal with the DPRK is through dialogue and pressure. That is precisely the policy that the DPRK itself is using to deal with the outside world.
It is rare that the DPRK is impelled to reach out in this way to the ROK, and its readiness to engage presents significant strategic opportunities to advance inter-Korean relations. I hope that the South Korean government will seize these. But it is very important to be clear-headed. The DPRK is an expert in extracting maximum concrete benefit from the outside while giving only a symbolic minimum in return. It must not be allowed to do so this time. Also, the DPRK has in the past tried to play off China against the ROK. It must not be allowed to do so now - and President Park Geun-hye’s excellent relationship with President Xi Jinping will make it much more difficult for the DPRK to play this game.
It is possible that some aspects of the future of the Korean peninsula will depend on decisions taken in both Seoul and Pyongyang in the next few months.
*The author is former British Ambassador to North Korea and a Pantech fellow of the Shorenstein Asia?Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.
by John Everad