“There are times when nothing much can happen between the Koreas. This is not one of them.”
Quoting yourself is a bit narcissistic – not to say North Korean. Covering the DPRK means you get it wrong – we all do – a lot of the time. So forgive me if I flag up a happy exception.
I wrote those words four days ago, albeit without hope. This has been such a frustrating year in inter-Korean relations: an area which I have followed closely since the turn of the century, writing quarterly for Pacific Forum-CSIS’s online journal Comparative Connections.
Those 14 years have been a mixed bag. The sunshine policy of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun brought unprecedented (if one-sided) co-operation – only for sunshine to be eclipsed by Lee Myung-bak’s hard line. Plans were cancelled; the Cheonan was sunk; the South slapped on sanctions; the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island. Relations juddered from bad to worse.
Enter Park Geun-hye, preaching Trustpolitik. Kim Jong Un promptly bit that friendly hand: greeting Park with a volley of verbal threats, actual missile and nuclear tests, and sabotaging the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last remaining North-South joint venture.
Southern patience got the KIC up and running again. But then Park seemed to lose the plot. As I’ve argued before, a generally harder line, plus a series of missteps and misjudgments – including planning for unification as if it were a contingent event, rather than a project shared jointly with Pyongyang – were hard to square with trust-building. What was Park playing at?
North Korea was puzzled too – which is no excuse for the foul abuse they heaped on the ROK President. (Memo to KCNA: Maybe stop scrolling “CPRK Statement Denounces Park Geun Hye for Resorting to Acts of Sycophantic Treachery” on your masthead? It’s sooo yesterday.)
Most recently, it looked as if Seoul had let two rare chances for high-level contacts slip away. The Incheon Asiad was one, and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York another.
The North sent its new sports minister to the Asiad. He’s a mate of Kim Jong Un, but no one bothered to talk seriously to him. In New York Park gave an uncompromising speech, while the ROK ignored the rare presence in the Big Apple of another member of Kim Jong Un’s inner circle: the DPRK’s newish foreign minister Ri Yong Su, formerly Ri Chol. Furious, the North’s media reverted to calling Park nasty names and even calling for her “elimination.”
So that was that, it seemed. But then, falling awake to the BBC early this morning, what did I hear? Or was I still asleep and dreaming? A top-level Northern delegation had suddenly come South. Ostensibly for the Asiad closing ceremony, but there had to be more to it than that.
Not one. Not two. Three of the most powerful men in Pyongyang got on a plane and flew to Incheon, at a day’s notice, just like that. Boldness is one of North Korea’s virtues. Park Geun-hye doesn’t do bold, so thank goodness the other guys grabbed the nettle at the 11th hour.
For any one of this trio alone to come would have been a big event. Let’s run through them:
Kim Yang Gon is the North’s point man on relations with the South, as head of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). In that capacity he’s been south at least twice before. In a protocol row which scuppered talks last year, Seoul wanted Kim to be the Northern interlocutor they dealt with – but Pyongyang refused.
Choe Ryong Hae seemed briefly to be Kim Jong Un’s new right hand man after the Young Marshal did in his uncle Jang Song Thaek last December. A long-time Kim family crony, after a wholly civilian career Choe was parachuted into the military in 2012 to take charge of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)’s Political Bureau. Lately though he had doffed what had always looked an ill-fitting uniform. Despite recurrent rumors that he too had been purged, Choe now wears the Party sports hat – suits you, sir – formerly worn by, erm, the late Jang. Sending him to Seoul shows that Choe is still very much a power in the land in Pyongyang.
Hwang Pyong So is quite simply The Business; maybe even the Boss. Little known before Kim Jong Un inherited power, after a series of promotions he is now vice chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) – the DPRK’s top executive body, ranking above the Cabinet – and also has that key KPA politics job formerly held by Choe. All this makes him, at the very least, Kim’s number two. And though he arrived in the South in the full regalia of a KPA Vice-Marshal, like Choe Ryong Hae he’s actually only a recent, pretend soldier. His whole career has actually been in the WPK’s Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD).
Thereby hangs a debate. One school of thought, namely the high-level defector Jang Jin Sung and his website New Focus International (NFI), claims it’s the OGD and Hwang who actually run North Korea today – and Kim Jong Un is their puppet. Hitherto I’ve regarded this theory as fascinating but not proven, but I have to say this visit strengthens it. (An NFI posting adds an intriguing detail, suggesting that Hwang’s very visible bodyguards with their earpieces, in suits not uniformed, are lèse-majesté: usurping a privilege strictly confined to the Leader.)
Just peruse the pictures of this troika on their jaunt South. Did they look like somebody else’s emissaries, or – as often with North Koreans on mission – nervous at all? Not a bit of it. They looked like the guys running the show. Which may be because that’s exactly who they are. In the continued absence from public view – it’s been over a month, now – of Kim Jong Un, this visit poses even more sharply the question of who really wields ultimate power in Pyongyang. Maybe Kim is being shunted willy-nilly into more of a figurehead role. Time will soon tell.
At all events it’s astonishing for even one, much less three, cadres as senior as this to turn up in person in South Korea, rather than sending lower-level minions. We don’t of course know what transpired over the working lunch, or at Prime Minister Chung Hong-won’s two (two!) meetings with the trio – in between, they all sat together at the Asiad closing ceremony – nor what Hwang and the ROK National Security Adviser, Kim Kwan-jin (denounced in the past by KCNA as a traitor and a rabid dog), whispered to one another. But it can only be good that they met – better late than never – and agreed to resume high-level talks in the coming weeks.
It could still all go pear-shaped, of course, as so often in the past. But there is a lot of potential common ground on economic issues. Also, both sides have good reason to deal. The North is increasingly isolated, while even Southern conservatives are calling on Park Geun-hye to be more pro-active with Pyongyang. Ultimately, the Korean question is for Koreans to sort out. Maybe, just maybe, they are finally ready to get down to business together.