North Korea never ceases to surprise. Predictably unpredictable, you might say.
But a change of voice? Towards the South? That was the last thing I was expecting right now.
Yet lo and behold, Pyongyang has sent Seoul a message which is polite. Kind of.
Its content is negative. Kim Jong Un has declined Moon Jae-in’s invitation to his upcoming summit with ASEAN leaders in Busan. Well, there’s a surprise. Not.
Did anyone seriously suppose Kim would accept? Even the Blue House, still desperately clinging to its delusion that the peninsula’s peace processes are not dead in the water, surely never believed he’d show up to this of all events.
They may not even have expected a reply. It would be quite in character for Pyongyang to keep schtum and ignore this invitation. Or alternatively, issue an angry diatribe denouncing the whole idea as a wicked imperialist plot. Yet for once they did something more interesting.
Intriguingly, the North sent what is tantamount to a formal RSVP, albeit in public. Moreover, this is couched in a tone markedly different from their usual voice. It’s actually quite polite – though shot through with sarcasm, and certainly critical.
You might want to read this now, courtesy of KCNA Watch, before perusing our own take on what it all means.
SHOUT – THEN RAISE YOUR VOICE
Reading DPRK media for half a century – *sobs* I could have had a life! – has not been fun. The leaden prose deadens the brain. Must be even worse for the guys who have to write it.
Talk about same old same old. In many ways the Pyongyang Times today is little changed from when I first encountered it, back in the 1960s. Hectoring? You bet. Nuanced? You jest.
North Korea is always shouty. When they get angry, which is often, they just shout louder.
For foes – the DPRK is never short of those, real or imagined – the shouts are insults: often puerile, sometimes vile. Few ROK Presidents have escaped. Lee Myung-bak was cartooned as a rat being stabbed to death. With predictable sexism, they called Park Geun-hye a whore.
No South Korean leader has ever been friendlier to the North than the Blue House’s current incumbent, Moon Jae-in. Yet despite his unprecedented three summits with Kim Jong Un in 2018, this year even he has received a tongue-lashing – on top of being cold-shouldered.
In a speech in April, Kim told “the south Korean authorities” – meaning Moon – not to “pose as a meddlesome ‘mediator’ and ‘facilitator.’”
Ouch. Ungrateful whippersnapper. How does Kim reckon he ever got to meet Trump? Moon was the middleman who made it happen.
Honestly, what were Moon and his advisers thinking? Have they no political nous at all, to imagine such a visit was remotely possible?
Worse was to come. In August Pyongyang dismissed the latest of Moon’s tireless overtures, proffered on Liberation Day (August 15), as “remarks that make the boiled head of a cow provoke a side-splitting laughter” (maybe it sounds better in Korean).
For good measure, they also queried his mental faculties, and called him “an impudent guy rare to be found.” All this, if you please, from the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.
Don Kirk, veteran journalist and Korea-watcher (if no fan of Moon), caught the irony in a stark but true headline: “As South Korea’s Leader Turns Cheek, North Ramps Up Insults.”
That’s pretty much how it’s been since. True, last month Kim reportedly sent condolences on the death of Moon’s Northern-born mother. That was a private message: we don’t know what exactly it said or how it was sent.
In public, DPRK media have continually lambasted Moon’s government. “KCNA Commentary Criticizes South Korean Regime’s Confrontational Farce” is a typical headline nowadays.
So why the change? Unlike much other media froth – Donald Trump’s tweets, for instance – Pyongyang chooses its every word with great care. Some sort of message is being sent, for sure. But what?
POLITELY, EARNESTLY; DISTRESS, AGONY
Time to parse this new KCNA article. Unsigned and unattributed, it’s headlined: “Everything Needs Suitable Time and Place.” This begins ever so politely, a word it also uses about Moon:
“The preparation for a special ASEAN summit slated to open in Pusan, south Korea on November 25 is reportedly pushed forward in its final stage.
“On November 5, south Korean President Moon Jae In politely sent to us a personal letter earnestly inviting the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be present in the special summit.
“There is no reason for us not to be grateful for it, if the personal letter contained the sincere trust in the SAC Chairman and invitation carrying earnest expectation.
“We already know that the south side is looking forward to the visit by the SAC Chairman, with full preparations of the highest level including escort and ceremonies regarding his visit to Pusan.”
See what I mean? This is not the usual tone. Also, it’s exceptional for Northern media to use the phrase ‘south Korean President.’
Although as ever, no capital letter for South. And they didn’t say ROK, whereas DPRK was spelled out in full.
Unlike much other media froth – Donald Trump’s tweets, for instance – Pyongyang chooses its every word with great care
Yet the syntactically odd phrase beginning “if” already suggests a caveat as regards Moon’s sincerity. And then the reference to escort and ceremonies in effect reveals confidential details of what Kim was offered. That becomes explicit in the next two paragraphs:
“We also fully understand the distress and agony of President Moon Jae In to hold on to the opportunity to make it a new occasion for unraveling the present north-south relations.
“This can be known from the fact that in the wake of the personal letter, there were several earnest requests for sending even a special envoy, if the SAC Chairman could not come.”
Now that is definitely spilling secrets. How embarrassing for the Blue House, if unsurprising, for Pyongyang to break protocol and cruelly reveal their desperation. Imagine how it went:
“OK, not Kim then. But please, won’t you do your old buddy Moon a favor and just send someone? Maybe his sister? Or Kim Yong Nam? Or anyone! Please! Pretty please!”
PHOTO-OP IN BUSAN? WE’LL PASS
No dice. Nothing doing. Which is no surprise. Honestly, what were Moon and his advisers thinking? Have they no political nous at all, to imagine such a visit was remotely possible?
In what conceivable universe, even in better times (2018, say), would Kim Jong Un rock up to a show whose whole aim is to celebrate the other Korea’s thriving relationship with a region which the North also wants to woo, but has nothing to offer? Makes absolutely no sense.
As indeed the KCNA article says, in its own inimitable fashion:
“How can the hand-shaking and photo-taking in the complicated international meeting of no great interest to us be compared with the historic moment when the top leaders of the north and the south held their joined hands high up on Mt Paektu, the sacred mountain of the nation.”
Good question. No way could Kim agree to a photo-op which makes him little more than an extra in South Korea’s jamboree. How did anyone in Seoul ever suppose that might happen?
On that count at least, for once I find it hard to disagree with Pyongyang’s verdict, which one might paraphrase as: Wrong invite, wrong place, wrong time.
By contrast, the wider excuses they give in the bulk of the article are specious, though drearily familiar.
“[T]he sentiment pervading the land of the south is not clean,” claims KCNA. Yawn. You can guess how this goes on. All the usual canards are trotted out.
South Korea is too dependent on the U.S., they cry. Even now “the minister of ‘Unification’ is on his way to the U.S. over the issue of north-south relations.”
Well yes, the U.S. and ROK are formal and longstanding treaty allies. Even if Trump is doing his damnedest, to Pyongyang’s delight, to tear them apart with his ludicrously grasping and tactless demands that Seoul pay five times more than before to host U.S. troops (USFK).
In what conceivable universe… would Kim Jong Un rock up to a show whose whole aim is to celebrate the other Korea’s thriving relationship with a region which the North also wants to woo, but has nothing to offer?
VISITS AND VASSALS
Come to that: If visits connote vassalage, how often has Kim Jong Un gone scurrying to Xi Jinping? Three times in just three months, last year. People who live in glass houses…
Another routine moan is that “south Korean conservative forces have become zealous in their censure and attack on the DPRK.” KCNA goes on:
“Even such wild words as a “regime change in north” and “leading the north to collapse” which could not even be heard in the previous regimes are being heard.”
That’s rubbish, as well they know. Regime change and collapse have been bandied about for decades. Southern conservatives have never liked or trusted the North. That’s no surprise, and nothing new.
The trouble is, Pyongyang’s back-tracking and missile misbehavior this year has been grist to the mill of ROK right-wingers – while giving much grief to Moon Jae-in.
But then the article gets more interesting. This, for instance:
“We will never follow without reason the impure attempt of the south side to give impression that dialogue is going on between the top leaders of the north and the south although no settlement of the fundamental issues between the north and the south, issues pertaining to the nation, is being made, and to insert the north-south issue to the corner of the “neo-southern policy” masterminded by it.”
That sentence makes two points, and I agree with both. The latter part asks again, in effect, why “the south side made an offer for discussing the north-south relations in the theatre of multi-lateral cooperation” (as the article says further on).
A bit repetitive, but you get the message. Why the ASEAN summit, of all forums? What have inter-Korean relations got to do with Southeast Asia?
By all means, Kim and Moon need a fresh summit (but let’s be clear who is blocking this. Kim promised they’d meet often this year – but then backtracked). They should indeed meet – but for a dedicated session, not as a sideshow.
The earlier part of the sentence is also cogent, putting its finger on something I’ve stressed more than once in earlier articles. Why oh why does Seoul keep pretending that inter-Korean dialogue is still ongoing when patently it has ground to a halt and is dead as a dodo?
No one is fooled, nor impressed, by this ostrich stance. Now that Pyongyang has come out and said it, maybe the Blue House will change its tune and get real. That is long overdue.
Might this article itself, despite its criticisms, signal that dialogue is not dead after all? That is possible – but I think unlikely. True, after all the barbs it ends ever so politely once more:
“We are grateful for the trust and sincerity of the south side but we hope it would understand the reason that we failed to find out the proper reason for the SAC Chairman to visit Pusan.”
It would be nice if Pyongyang could maintain such good manners; we shall see. But to me, the fine words are heavy with sarcasm, as is the article throughout.
Its tone – more in sorrow than anger – may be refreshing, but it’s also patronizing and implicitly supercilious. Dear oh dear, doesn’t old Moon understand anything? Let’s spell it out once more to the poor deluded soul.
That’s the sub-text, as I read it. But as so often, I’d love to be wrong.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
North Korea never ceases to surprise. Predictably unpredictable, you might say.But a change of voice? Towards the South? That was the last thing I was expecting right now.Yet lo and behold, Pyongyang has sent Seoul a message which is polite. Kind of.Its content is negative. Kim Jong Un has declined Moon Jae-in’s invitation to his upcoming summit with ASEAN leaders in Busan. Well,
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.