The sister speaks
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It was former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill who compared an alliance without exercises to an orchestra without musical instruments. He wrote in the Korean media that North Korea would oppose a joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise as it always did, and China and Russia also would criticize the U.S. for ruining a reconciliatory mood. After Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister and vice director of the Workers’ Party, demanded South Korea choose between hope and despair, China’s foreign minister agreed with her. In fact, Hill wrote the article in February 2018. Since then, the orchestra of the South Korea-U.S. alliance has been downsized drastically with main instruments missing, and now it is going to shrink even further.
North Korea’s demand for a suspension of the joint drill is nothing new. But it looks quite unusual this year. What I really don’t understand is our response to North Korea whenever it pressures South Korea to stop the drill. It is worth going back in chronological order.
At the eighth Workers’ Party convention in January, Kim Jong-un mentioned the “spring day three years ago” and demanded suspension of the military exercise. As it is the first year of the Biden administration, Kim may have regarded the first joint drill slated for March as a touchstone for a new U.S. policy on North Korea. Right after that, President Moon Jae-in said the drill could be negotiated with Pyongyang, causing a controversy. “Do you conduct a drill after getting approval from your enemy?” asked his opponents. Unification Minister Lee In-young and thirty-five members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) joined the move by demanding a delay or suspension of the drill. Nevertheless, the March joint drill was carried out as scheduled, and Kim Yo-jong harshly condemned South Korea for making a “stupid choice.”
After the South-U.S. summit in May in Washington, President Moon Jae-in brought up the joint drill again. He mentioned that as a large-scale exercise would be a challenge due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States would make a decision based on the North-U.S. relations. In the meantime, letters were exchanged between South and North Korean leaders, military communication lines were restored, and Kim Yo-jong pressured Seoul to suspend the drill as if she were handing down a command. After all the trouble, a somewhat reduced drill is to be held later this month. While I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, I cannot shake off the feeling that South and North Koreas are in perfect harmony over the joint drill. It is a reasonable conclusion that the harmony was created to facilitate another inter-Korean summit before President Moon steps down next May.
It is unprecedented that seventy-four members of the DP and splinter parties signed a petition to cancel a military exercise as it helps to “fuel tension on the Korean Peninsula.” Their logic is not only synonymous with Pyongyang’s rhetoric but also translates into a denial of the government’s official position that the joint drill is for a defensive purpose.
That’s not all. A nominee to head the National Diplomatic Academy even argued that the drill would not be needed considering the gap in the national strength between South and North Korea. That’s the same as claiming that you can do a concert without a rehearsal as long as you have good instruments and a concert hall. Unlike a concert, emergency situations that require mobilization of the military come without notice.
The Blue House appointed such a person to a vice-ministerial-level position citing his “broad understanding and expertise in overall foreign policy and security.” He was nominated to teach the people who will become diplomats upon graduating and to oversee the blueprint of government decision-making and its policy-shaping process. So why wouldn’t Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong be happy?
The power of Kim Yo-jong’s order probably surprises Kim herself more than anyone else. She would not have anticipated such immediate effects when she first brought up the propaganda leaflets issue. In June 2020, she threatened South Korea to make a law to ban the sending of anti-North fliers “if needed.” As such successful cases pile up, Kim is falling into the trap of self-confidence. She may have a false belief that whatever she says will come true. I don’t know what kind of command Kim Yo-jong will make next time. But it seems like we’ve asked for it.