A double-edged swordA scene stealer is a performer in a film or drama who attracts more attention than the lead players through powerful acting or other factors. The scene stealer on the global political stage is undoubtedly Kim Jong-un of North Korea. He demonstrated an extraordinary ability to crash a party and then steal the spotlight.
He sent his younger sister Kim Yo-jong to South Korea when global attention was focused on Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics.
The 30-year-old modest-looking member of North Korea’s ruling dynasty was the center of attention when she arrived with a 21-member delegation on her brother’s private jet. The smiling young woman met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in plus the prime minister, head of the national spy agency and other key presidential staff. Cho Myoung-gyon, unification minister, was constantly at her side as if he was her personal guide. It is not an exaggeration to claim North Korea managed to hijack South Korea’s PyeongChang Olympics.
Given the mysteriousness and mighty power of the North’s ruling family, we cannot fault anyone for the red-carpet treatment given Kim as she is the only person in Pyongyang who can talk straight to the despotic ruler of North Korea. Meeting with South Korean President Moon at the Blue House and handing over a letter from her brother, Kim encouraged the host to play “the leading role in opening a new chapter towards unification.” The younger sister of the mighty ruler — instead of 90-year-old Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of North Korea who accompanied her to the Blue House — was able to make such condescending remarks because she may have been used to royal treatment back home.
Like her brother, Kim had been educated at a private school in Switzerland. She too may not be naïve about the outside world. She implied she knows about South Korea by saying, “Seoul does not seem that foreign even though this is my first visit.” I hope she pays back the South Korean hospitality by frankly telling her brother what she saw and felt during her brief stay in the South. It would be even better if her visit helps Pyongyang change its mind about its cherished nuclear weapons program. It would be best if she could bring about a fairytale-like ending to her journey by telling her brother how nice it felt to be on friendly terms with South Korea and part of the global community.
Kim Yo-jong may have returned home pampered and gratified, but she left her host in a tight spot with her brother’s invitation to Pyongyang.
Moon showed a reserved response to the offer as he knew it could turn out to be a poisoned apple. He politely said, “Let’s work to make the conditions right.” He was implying the visit can not take place if conditions are not met.
He certainly had to be conscious of Washington. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics, did not hide his displeasure at the sight of North Korean officials and the cozy ties between the two Koreas. With the world watching the VIP booth in real time, he stayed seated when the unified Korean Olympic team received a standing ovation as they marched into the stadium on opening night. Persuading Washington is going to be hard.
The United States stands firm on its position that it will not ease maximum pressure until North Korea surrenders its nuclear program. Pence told the press that Seoul and Washington are united in that stance. Considering such a firm position on the issue, Washington won’t be convinced by the logic that inter-Korean dialogue is necessary for the denuclearization goal. Without any tangible progress in denuclearization from Pyongyang, there cannot be any developments in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
A first test of the alliance centers on resuming the annual joint military exercises, which were delayed until after the PyeongChang Olympics. The Korean peninsula no doubt will go back to a tense status quo when the joint drills kick off and North Korea makes nuclear and missile provocations in response. Seoul must find some solution before the Paralympics end next month.
It could invite Pyongyang to watch the drills on the condition that it suspends its nuclear and missile tests. If Seoul can succeed in some mediation plan, it can help generate developments in inter-Korean relationship as well as the arrangement of dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.
The liberal president must be aware that the South Korean public is not as eager about inter-Korean summits as in the past. It will surely disapprove of a ceremonial meeting unless the nuclear issue is on the agenda. A third summit, therefore, should be held in Seoul, not Pyongyang as in the two past summits. If the North Korean ruler is not comfortable about the idea of coming to the South Korean capital, a neutral place like Jeju Island could be an alternative. Like his sister, Kim also needs to experience the feel of South Korea.
The conciliatory mood between the two Koreas through the momentum of the Olympics is a double-edged sword for the Moon Jae-in administration. It can act as either medicine or poison. The question is whether Moon and his team have the diplomatic capabilities to use the double-edged sword in South Korea’s favor.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 13, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.