Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
As expected, North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un did not show up at the South Korea-ASEAN summit in Busan, despite being invited by President Moon Jae-in.
State media then published a commentary where it essentially said that the North Korean leader would not and should not have a summit for the sake of it, and that in the current situation no meaningful discussion is possible.
However, the North Korean commentary was remarkably polite towards the South Koreans. In its statement, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said: “There is no reason for us not to be grateful for it, if the personal letter contained the sincere trust in the Chairman and an invitation carrying earnest expectation.”
The statement even assured Seoul that the North Korean side “fully understand[s] the distress and agony of President Moon Jae-in” in his fruitless efforts to restart inter-Korean cooperation.
Nonetheless, they reiterated their old position: now, when none of the earlier promises of economic cooperation are coming true, negotiations and exchanges do not make much sense. In its usual flowery language, KCNA says that doing so would be “as impossible as balancing an egg on the tip of an ox horn.”
This document heralded a remarkable – if likely provisional – change of tone in Pyongyang’s dealings with the Moon administration and the South Korean President himself. While the North Koreans still refuse to cooperate, they at least are now doing it in a manner that is not deliberately offensive, and this is new.
Indeed, when in August President Moon made some reconciliatory proposals towards Pyongyang, he was addressed in a very different way. That statement read: “We even question if President Moon’s thought process is sound when he mentions ‘talks’ between North and South while playing out war scenarios that plan to destroy most of our armies in 90 days… He truly is a shameless man.”
The previous few months were a time of systematic debacles for Seoul, with one proposal after another being rejected in a manner deliberately calculated to be humiliating.
However, throughout all these tribulations, South Korean officials have not merely remained quiet, but frequently tried to re-interpret the moves of their angry partners in a way that would present North Korean behavior in a more favorable light.
Thus, the match was played in a completely empty stadium, in front of 50,000 unoccupied seats, with only VIP lounges being taken by a handful of foreign diplomats. No live broadcast was permitted.
While unification minister Kim Yeon-chul expressed his “disappointment” about this strange encounter, he also said that the decision not to let North Koreans in was “fair,” since their presence would put the home team at an advantage in the absence of Southern spectators and cheerleaders.
At one point, the resort was a flagship of North-South cooperation (heavily subsidized by South Korean taxpayers, as usual). However, Kim Jong Un had a look at the semi-abandoned facilities, not in use since 2008, and ordered them demolished.
The reaction of unification minister Kim Yeon-chul again followed the same line – an expression of regret, followed by some lame excuses for North Korea’s actions. In this case minister Kim said that the facilities were old anyway, so, presumably, their loss will mean little.
When an African swine fever epidemic hit South Korean farmers, obviously coming from the North (wild boars do not care much about diplomatic impasse and cross the DMZ with little difficulty), the Moon administration tried to play down the “Northern connection.”
South Korean officials have also refused to respond negatively to North Korea’s frequent missile launches. Furthermore, they even chose to systematically describe these missiles as “projectiles,” which certainly sounds less menacing.
In a somewhat similar twist, in early November the Moon administration’s national security adviser, against what was largely seen as hard evidence to the contrary, claimed that the North Koreans were not capable of developing the TEL (launching vehicles) for ICBMs.
The implication was, again, that North Koreans are not as dangerous as they may look, but the statement sparked a wave of criticism from the expert community.
All these actions look strange, but only at first glance. If judged from the current administration’s point of view, these efforts make perfect sense.
Having spent so much political capital on advertising North Korea’s alleged eagerness to cooperate with the South, the Blue House does not want to give its domestic political opponents ammunition by admitting that North Koreans have not merely been unwilling to cooperate, but have taken a deliberately provocative stance towards the South Korean administration.
The Blue House correctly judges that it has nothing to gain, but a lot to lose, by taking a harsh stance towards the North, so we have been treated to the rare and remarkable sight of politicians turning the other cheek every time they get smacked.
This is not going to change any time soon. Even if next year we see North Korean ICBMs in the air, and windows in houses in China borderland regions broken by the tremors of the new super-powerful tests, the Blue House will remain in a remarkably cheerful mood – ostensibly, of course.
Such truth-telling will deliver a serious blow to its domestic approval ratings, since one of the administration’s major selling point has been its alleged ability to “bring the era of eternal peace and co-prosperity” to Northeast Asia and “solve the North Korean nuclear issue.”
It would also empower hard-liners in both Seoul and Washington – people who want more sanctions and more tough talk at best, and would not mind a couple of airstrikes (damn the consequences) at worst.
So, the Moon administration is doing what it should: pretending that everything is going as intended and as promised in early 2018, in the halcyon days of the first North-South summit in over a decade.
The people who run the DPRK are, after all, hardline pragmatists who care about two things first and foremost: money and guns
When one looks at North Korea’s recent actions with Pyongyang’s goals and agenda in mind, its seemingly bizarre behavior makes perfect sense, too.
It is true that the Moon administration has been the most sympathetic to Pyongyang in a decade. However, North Korean strategists understand that Seoul’s friendliness is purely symbolic: they do not need what the South Korean government can deliver at the moment, and they know that the South Korean government is unable and/or unwilling to deliver what they really want.
In other words, there is little doubt that Moon Jae-in and his people want to be good towards the North Koreans, but this desire remains purely theoretical and, as a result, largely irrelevant.
In essence, the South Korean government is of value to the North as, first, a source of cash (via aid or assisted and subsidized “cooperation”) and, second, a source of diplomatic leverage in dealing with the United States.
All other aspects are secondary. It is especially important to realize that the symbolic exchanges, be it soccer matches, joint conferences, pop concerts, or divided family reunions, are of little if any significance to the North.
The people who run the DPRK are, after all, hardline pragmatists who care about two things first and foremost: money and guns.
And, in the months following the disastrous Hanoi summit, the South has been unable to deliver on both the fronts that matter.
The South Korean government, in spite of all its sweet-talking, has not done anything on the inter-Korean cooperation front – out of fear, of course, that it cannot afford to openly violate UN Security Council resolutions.
The desire to keep Americans happy (quite reasonable, given Seoul’s predicament) also means that South Korea will never engage in the kind of small-scale clandestine trade and smuggling the Chinese and, to a much lesser extent, the Russians are now engaged in.
On another front, that of diplomacy with the U.S., things do not look encouraging. While the South Koreans are working their best to restart U.S.-North Korea talks, and making every effort to persuade Washington, their mediation is clearly not working.
All efforts to be cooperative, to please the Americans by buying their most expensive military hardware and by accepting all demands for additional payments, have not been reciprocated by the White House so far, and are unlikely to be reciprocated in the near future.
Additionally, if persistent rumors are correct, in their efforts to push the Americans and North Koreans towards the negotiation table, the South Koreans have relied too much on wishful thinking and a creative interpretation of other sides’ positions.
In other words, the South Korean negotiators have been providing the Northerners with a rosy and over-optimistic picture of what Americans will be willing to give. Such excessive, if pragmatic, zeal has allegedly provoked even more disappointment in Pyongyang.
So, while it makes some sense for the North Koreans to beat the Blue House, they should not go too far. If the voters see this development as a humiliation and failure for Moon Jae-in, they might be pushed towards the conservatives, who are much worse for Pyongyang.
And it makes sense to alternate periods of humiliation with periods of relatively polite non-cooperation – and such a period is, seemingly, is about to start. Now the North Koreans claim they “understand the agony” of a man whom they just three months ago described as a “shameless person” who has “problems with his thought process.”
Still, even the recent statement is not that positive. The North Korean statement still says that attempts to start talks now, when South Korea religiously follows the sanctions regime, are “like watering a dead dry tree.” This is another reminder of what North Korea actually expects from the South, and their lack of interest in nice words, broad smiles, and visits by K-pop groups.
Still, they do not want Moon’s side to lose elections. For North Korea’s leaders, the ideal outcome is to keep Moon Jae-in and his people in a state of discomfort, so they will try even harder to deliver what Pyongyang wants.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News. As expected, North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un did not show up at the South Korea-ASEAN summit in Busan, despite being invited by President Moon Jae-in.State media then published a commentary where it essentially said that the North Korean leader would not and should
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.