A North Korean foray to the South
I am part of the Cold War generation who has grown up suspicious of communist North Koreans. And my opinion of them did not improve over the past half a century. They were so predictable because they did exactly the opposite of what they were expected or hoped to do.
Over the weekend, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The top brass of the Pyongyang’s inner circle, except for the supreme leader himself, was at the front row of the main stadium watching the closing ceremony of the Incheon Asian Games. High-ranking officials have not been here since the deadly attacks on Yeonpyeong Island and the Cheonan warship in 2010.
It was also the first time that the three leaders who rank directly below Kim were in the same place at the same time in South Korea. Their arrival was proposed through a North Korean delegate on the North Korean national team - not the usual formal contact channel - just a day prior to their visit. They flew in on a private jet belonging to their boss, Kim Jong-un, with a group of their own security guards. Their half-day visit, ostensibly to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games - in which North Korea performed beyond expectations, ranking seventh - stole the spotlight.
Some predict that the sudden and bold move was to silence rumors about Kim’s health, as the paramount leader has not been seen in public for a month. But intelligence sources believe Kim is held up by a temporary illness and does not have a serious health problem.
Such a high-profile visit - led by Hwang Pyong-so, the vice chairman of North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission and director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People’s Army; Choe Ryong-hae, the Workers’ Party Central Committee secretary who previously held Hwang’s position in the defense commission; and Kim Yang-gon, the party’s top official in charge of South Korean affairs, was unimaginable.
Still, the group had no letter or words to deliver to President Park Geun-hye. They politely turned down her offer to meet them, citing a tight schedule even as their flight back home would not take long. South Korean officials were able to get just a promise of a high-level meeting in late October or early November.
North Korea is in dire straits right now from years of sanctions and isolation from the outside world. The United States remains stubborn even with three American hostages detained in North Korean prison camps. The negotiations between Pyongyang and Tokyo to improve ties by addressing Japanese abductees have been tedious. Relations with traditional ally China are not as friendly and tight as before. Even if the aim was to break the ice with Seoul, the delegates perhaps were too high ranking.
This was the first time the head of the North Korean Army’s General Political Bureau came to the South. The last military bigwig was Park Hun-yong during the 1950-1953 Korean War as a foreign envoy. He did not visit again after he became the first head of the general political bureau in charge of political and ideological indoctrination of officers and service members of the People’s Army. The presence of Hwang, clad in an army suit in the main stadium of Incheon, could have a symbolic meaning and ramifications.
North Korea has always been two-faced. Its apparent charm offensive is usually accompanied by surprise provocations. This is why we fear it may be preparing for some major event, like a fourth nuclear test or military provocations as deadly as the 2010 attacks. Considering North Korea’s trajectory, we cannot be blamed for our skepticism.
Attending the closing ceremony of the Asian Games is too weak a pretext to require such a high-profile visit. The men are a more appropriate entourage for a state summit.
Kim Yang-gon took pains to put meaning on Hwang’s visit. He addressed Hwang, seven years his junior, with the highest respect: “Our director is here. … I will speak on behalf of our director.”
He may be suggesting South Korea should show the same respect to Pyongyang when Seoul sends a delegation to North Korea next time.
We cannot know North Korea’s real intentions. The political show was too sudden and brash for us to decipher the real meaning. Our past experiences also warn us to be vigilant for a potential surprise attack.
Still, we want to put our trust in North Korea. The ball is in our court now. We must set aside human rights and nuclear issues for a moment and consider easing sanctions and resuming the Mount Kumgang tour program.
The North Korean delegates’ appearance in Incheon was a great show. It is up to us to make it a lasting one so that it can lead to greater accomplishments, like a summit. North Korea has defied expectations before, and if we follow up with a similar act, inter-Korean relations could improve at a surprising pace.
I hope the North Koreans will prove to be “unpredictable” by defying our expectations this time. This zigzagging, ever-winding inter-Korean relationship has become too tiring.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 6, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho