Need for clarityThe discreet nature of a visit by Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, raises serious concerns. Kim crossed the border through an alternative civilian route instead of passing through the official gateway of Tongil Bridge in Paju to keep away from media attention and South Korean protesters as he is blacklisted by both the United States and South Korea for masterminding deadly attacks. The chief North Korean delegate to the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in charge of inter-Korean affairs held an hour-long meeting with President Moon Jae-in at an undisclosed location in Pyeongchang County. The Blue House simply issued a statement that Kim relayed Pyongyang’s intention to talk to Washington without sharing other details of the talks or any photo to back them. It is therefore unclear what kind of talks Pyongyang intends with Washington.
Chung Eui-yong, chief of the National Security Office, also met the controversial North Korean visitor at a hotel in Seoul where they discussed potential for a dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, as well as an inter-Korea summit.
We can understand why Seoul needs to be extra careful about meetings with Kim. His visit has fueled anger among conservatives as he is suspected of having masterminded two deadly attacks in 2010 — torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, and firing artillery at the inhabited island of Yeonpyeong. But the opaque meetings only worsened suspicions as they could lead to behind-the-scene deals that could be against public sentiment or the international consensus at a time when Washington is already disgruntled over Seoul’s rapprochement towards nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
Pyongyang is moving on to the next stage, having brought an olive branch to Pyeongchang. Moon reportedly told Kim Yong-chol that the inter-Korean relationship should progress. Kim said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shares the same view. From their conversation, inter-Korean exchanges can pick up after a decade-long stalemate. The Unification Ministry has received 255 applications for contacts with the North from the civilian, cultural, and religious sector. But there must be no more concessions. We cannot weaken sanctions when North Korea does not show genuine actions towards denuclearization. Kim must tell his boss when he returns home that there will be no progress until denuclearization begins to look like a real possibility.