A frustrating volte-faceIt is regrettable that North Korea withdrew the permission it gave to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit Kaesong. Unpredictable behavior by the North is hardly new, but this time it changed its mind only a day before Ban’s scheduled visit. The recalcitrant regime’s reversal of a decision without any explanation is a provocative refusal to act like a normal member of the international community, not to mention a brazen diplomatic discourtesy.
The North’s paramount National Defense Commission, its highest branch of government and supreme policy-making organization, also went so far as to claim that the country has now entered a new phase in which it can launch nuclear attacks with miniaturized warheads that fit on missiles. The commission issued a statement threatening South Korea not to challenge it thoughtlessly. The bellicose warning from the North dashed cold water on any glimmer of hope that Secretary Ban’s trip could produce a breakthrough in the inter-Korean ties that have been frozen solid ever since the North’s attack on the Cheonan warship in March 2010.
North Korea’s decision to allow Ban’s visit was a surprise from the beginning. On Pyongyang’s part, there was almost nothing to gain from his trip. Ban’s visit could hardly translate into the easing of UN sanctions levied in accordance with a series of Security Council resolutions and Pyongyang could have faced more pressure to kick off dialogue with Seoul than before. Moreover, the country has nothing to brag about in the fourth year of Kim Jong-un’s reign, which began with the slogan of “A militarily and economically strong country.” Under a pathetically sclerotic system with no room for improvement - despite the pushing and pressing of its Supreme Leader - it would clearly have been burdensome for the country to introduce a world-famous leader from South Korea to North Korean people long locked in a closed society.
North Korea’s last-minute rejection of Ban makes the possibility of Pyongyang returning to the negotiating table more remote. The North will most likely escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula through additional missile launches or nuclear tests. That makes Ban and South Korea realize the futility of any kind of expectations for the North. We must not be wishful or sentimental when it comes to Pyongyang. With an attitude firmly based on reality however, we must also strive to take the lead in helping the secluded country escape from isolation by persistently proposing talks and augmenting cooperation. We must persuade it to help itself. That is our destiny.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 21, Page 30