North is ‘desperate’ to mend ties

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North is ‘desperate’ to mend ties

In a four-part series, the JoongAng Ilbo has been analyzing Kim Jong-un’s major change of course this year that led to today’s summit. This is the last article in the series.

After taking office last May, President Moon Jae-in and his administration spent the rest of 2017 trying to cajole North Korea into talking to them, efforts that were in vain as the regime tested a nuclear bomb and ballistic missiles and threatened the United States, a key ally.

Then came New Year’s Day 2018, when Kim Jong-un declared in a televised address that the North should improve ties with the South and “glorify this meaningful year as an eventful one noteworthy in the history of the nation.”

Seoul quickly picked up the cue. Both sides agreed to hold a high-level meeting on Jan. 9 at the Peace House, a South Korean-controlled building in the border village of Panmunjom.

During the meeting, both sides settled on three major agreements in just 11 hours, a sprint in the world of high-stakes diplomacy. Other working-level meetings that followed wrapped up in similar times, a striking departure from the past when talks would drag on past midnight and end without any agreements.

Local pundits say the stark change in Pyongyang’s attitude shows how desperate the regime is to mend ties with Seoul this year as Kim makes his diplomatic debut. When South Korean musicians performed in Pyongyang this month, North Korean authorities allowed them to use a sauna and massage rooms for free, a break from the past when the regime minimized amenities for South Korean visitors.

Officials who have communicated with the North this year say even the interlocutors don’t seem to fully grasp Kim’s calculations. The young leader took the Blue House by surprise when he dispatched his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, and the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, and even more shock came when he relayed an invitation to Moon for an inter-Korean summit through the delegation. The previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 were all initiated by Seoul and required strenuous persuasion.

“Kim Jong-un’s foremost task after assuming leadership was solidifying his power in a regime ruled by his father for almost 20 years,” says Chin Hee-gwan, a professor of unification studies at Inje University. “He’s completed his nuclear development program, a goal handed down by his father, and he’s grown more confident about the safety of his regime, which is why he’s come to the negotiation table with his golden axe [nuclear weapons] as security.”

Kim Yeon-chul, president of the Korean Institute for National Unification, interprets the North Korean media, frequently referring to the country as a “strategic state” as a geographical subtext that the regime will try to make use of its neighbors China and South Korea.

“After the North Korea-U.S. summit, even if Pyongyang manages to build rapport with Washington, Kim Jong-un will need Seoul’s backing to wiggle out of international sanctions and improve his economy,” says Lim Eul-chul, director of the Center for International Cooperation for North Korean Development at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

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