North Korean arrogance
It was a carnival in Pyongyang. The colors of the inter-Korean summit were vivid. A welcoming crowd held up red flowers and wore hanbok, the traditional Korean attire. It was a familiar scene not unlike what we saw in the 2000 and 2007 summits. But Kim Jong-un added a new, unexpected element. It was the first time that the leaders of both Koreas paraded in an open car.
The art of mass performance in Pyongyang has evolved. North Korea’s image has always been one of a “cinema state.” The focus this time was the mass gymnastics at the May Day Stadium. The theatrical mobilization of citizens is a peculiar art of governing. It mobilizes dramatic devices. They were used to receive and welcome President Moon Jae-in. The symbolism was rife. The pinnacle was the two leaders climbing Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of the Korean people.
The Pyongyang Declaration is concise. Moon said, “The era of a Korean Peninsula without war has begun.” The declaration included a promise from Kim to visit Seoul this year. The young leader appeared to have chosen his words carefully. “Let’s make efforts to realize the aspiration and hope of all Koreans that the current developments in inter-Korean relations will lead to reunification!”
Kim’s best rhetoric, though, comes out when he is honest. At the Paekhwawon Guest House, he said, “Compared to developed countries, our accommodations are shabby.” His choice of the word shabby was unexpected. It set him apart from his father, Kim Jong-il, who had a sense of humor but never described his country as being “shabby.”
The scenes in Pyongyang were full of contradictions, some of them awkward and absurd. North Korean Vice Prime Minister Ri Ryong-nam met with South Korean business tycoons including Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Chairman Chey Tae-won and LG Chairman Koo Kwang-mo. All 17 businessmen made comments.
“A sign on the new building across from Pyongyang Station read ‘Science-centered, people-centered,’” Lee said. “Samsung’s management philosophy is technology-centered, people-centered.” Ri replied, “Mr. Lee is very famous in many ways.” At that moment, many people laughed. Ri added, “I hope you will become famous for working toward peace, prosperity and unification.”
The scene reminded me of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he met with Lee alone. The general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party did the same in October 2014. They all showed sincerity and asked Samsung to make investments in their countries. And they expressed gratitude.
Lee’s moment in Pyongyang was gloomy compared to his trips to New Delhi and Hanoi. How did Lee come to visit Pyongyang in the first place? The South Korean government said Seoul invited him. A North Korean official said Pyongyang asked for his presence. Meanwhile, the United States is watching business leaders from the perspective of international sanctions. Lee’s trip to Pyongyang was a by-product of triple pressure.
I found the group meeting more pitiful when it was Korail CEO Oh Young-sik’s turn. Ri said, “Rail cooperation is most important in inter-Korean relations, and you will have to visit several times a year.”
Oh is leading the inter-Korean rail project, but Ri’s language seemed like one of arrogance. North Korea’s rail infrastructure is outdated, with trains running an average 20 to 35 kilometers per hour (12 to 21 miles per hour). For perspective, South Korean Olympic gold medalist Lee Bong-ju can run as fast as 20 kilometers per hour in a marathon.
President Moon has made balanced development between the two countries part of his agenda. His priority is connecting the railroads between the two Koreas. People are sentimental and passionate, but the economy is cold and real. Inter-Korean cooperation starts with renovating the North’s old rail system. North Korean authorities need to abandon their petty pride.
Economic development is a daunting challenge. It is much harder than nuclear armament. China approached it with pragmatism. Vietnam expanded by faithfully opening its economy. Ri’s language made many South Koreans upset. Some of them have growing suspicions about helping the North. Its treatment of Samsung’s Lee was sloppy and could backfire.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 20, Page 31