New wine in old bottlesAt a ceremony commemorating the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration, President Moon Jae-in said, “If North Korea refrains from conducting additional nuclear or missile provocations, we can talk with North Korea without preconditions.” Attention is on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s response to Moon’s proposal. In the New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un said that he must do something to make a meaningful year to open a new chapter in self-reliant reunification. Moon’s proposal is a hot potato for Kim.
However, it is likely to take time for Kim to respond to Moon’s push for resuming talks for two reasons. First, the North Korean officials in charge of contacting Seoul are so accustomed to outdated solutions. On June 14, the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Country claimed that South Korean authorities need to choose between self-reliance or dependency on foreign powers, between working with fellow Koreans or prioritizing the Korea-U.S. alliance.
The Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Country is an organization directly under the State Affairs Commission in charge of unification efforts. The chairman is Ri Son-gwon, who is known to be the right-hand man of Kim Yong-chol, head of North Korea’s United Front Department. They both have military backgrounds and are more familiar with confrontation than dialogue. Kim Yong-chol is not an appropriate person for talks, as he is responsible for attacks on the warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. In July 2017, Kim Yong-chol resumed the coded broadcasting used to give directions to North Korean spies sent to the South. The coded broadcasting, which stopped after the inter-Korean Summit in June 2000, has been sent out 38 times so far. It shows that they avoid “changes.”
Secondly, the North Korean economy is becoming lively despite economic sanctions. Since the May 24 sanctions that started in 2010, inter-Korean economic exchanges have been halted, but as a balloon effect, North Korea-China trade increased drastically. According to the Kotra report, trade between North Korea and China grew from $3.4 billion in 2010 to $5.6 billion in 2011 after the sanctions and to $6.8 billion in 2014. Also, local marketplaces increased from 200 in 2010 to more than 400 in 2015. An emerging class of nouveau riche is now visible.
Andray Abrahamian, associate director of research at Choson Exchange, has said the logistics network is developing in North Korea and that online commerce is also active. Chosun Exchange is a Singapore-based non-profit organization providing economic and business management programs to North Korean residents. It suggests that Kim Jong-un has less reason to jump at Moon’s proposal for talks.
Therefore, Kim Jong-un cannot wisely handle this hot potato with Kim Yong-chol and Ri Son-gwon. Do not put new wine into old bottles.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 19, Page 30
*The author is a researcher at the Unification Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.