The author is an international, diplomatic and security news director of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korea strategically uses a signature “pressure strategy” with the Moon Jae-in administration. Whenever it feels the need, it resorts to hurling insults at the South Korean government. But that does not represent the North’s real feelings. Instead, it signifies a strategic move aimed at achieving what it wants to by humiliating its South Korean counterpart.
The strategy rests on an alternating use of praise and criticism. Usually, the praise comes before the blame. After creating an amicable environment by accepting South Korea’s proposals and coming to the negotiating table, North Korea suddenly does an about-face with political — and personal — insults lobbed at South Korean leaders if its real demands are not met. At the very moment of confusion, Pyongyang abruptly changes the agenda or conditions for negotiations.
During the Trump administration, for instance, Seoul and Washington agreed to postpone their joint military exercises to help facilitate U.S.-North denuclearization talks. On August 10, however, North Korea demanded the suspension of the joint drills and withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) after unilaterally cutting inter-Korean military communications lines. Here, Pyongyang’s demand for the delay of the drills in return for successful denuclearization talks was replaced by its demand for the suspension of the drills and pull-out of the USFK in return for inter-Korean dialogue. The remarkable shift was, of course, preceded by a dazzling parade of insulting rhetoric, including a “laughing stock even for a boiled cow head” and “top-caliber dude” it directed at President Moon Jae-in after he expressed hopes for a “peace economy.”
North Korea does not aim its strategic insult at the Moon administration alone. It did the same with conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. It called Lee a “national traitor” and Park a “bitch” on its state mouthpiece Nodong Sinmun. North Korea’s insults cross national borders. In 2017, it called Donald Trump a “dotard” when U.S-North relations bottomed out.
However, the degree of embarrassment on the other side varies depending on the character of the recipient. A liberal South Korean government finds it hard to properly respond to the North’s insult strategy if it touts its dealings with North Korea. If a South Korean government keeps a distance from the North, it can just go its way without worrying about insults from across the border. But if an administration gets an insult from the North after publicizing its past inter-Korean achievements, it gets baffled. If it responds to North Korea with its own insults, that will directly translate into an admission of its building a sandcastle with the recalcitrant regime.
On the other hand, if the administration keeps silent, it is put in an awkward position — both at home and abroad — as it gets ridiculed for shutting its mouth with the North while provoking Japan when the need arose. Domestic impact is what North Korea wants to wield in the South to force it to take a step closer to what it wants to achieve. If President Moon fumbles domestic affairs, Moon’s loyalists will block opponents from attacking him even by manipulating public opinion online. But North Korea is not a counterpart they can deal with.
The North’s strategy reminds us of the essence of its diplomacy with the South. It’s all about seeking self-interest. Pyongyang does not care whether it’s an insult or appeasement, as long as it benefits the Kim Jong-un regime. Even if he shook hands with the South Korean president on the Demarcation Line and had a candid conversation with him on a bridge across the border, that does not make a difference. What matters to the North is the security of the Kim regime. Anything — whether it be substandard insults or a gentle signature — is possible as long as it helps reinforce the regime’s security. If a South Korean head of state sticks with his beautiful memories with Kim in the northern section of Panmunjom, he is vulnerable to a stab in the back.
The strategic insults also expose the vanity of a South Korean leader’s sentimentalism toward it. Behind the beautified scenes of the two leaders walking hand in hand and crossing the border is a grim reality of a reclusive nation in which anything, even including mutual destruction, can be attempted to safeguard the sacrosanct dignity of its leader. In South Korea over the past four years, the Moon administration has been bent on hoisting the flag of rooting out what it called “deep-rooted evils” in our society.
But it is very naïve if it believes North Korea will extend its hand to South Korea just because they are of the same people. Pyongyang’s insult-based strategy shows its relentless use of every available means to ensure the survival of the regime just like South Korea does everything it can for future prosperity.
South and North Korea must develop their relations and find common interests in the face of confrontation. But the road to that goal is not only full of heart-warming and refreshing memories as from the two leaders at Panmunjom. The strategy of the North is a stark reminder that all the rosy pictures in the press releases and briefings by the Blue House and government are closer to virtual reality than reality.