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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
The new year began with contrasting signals from Pyongyang and Seoul about prospects for inter-Korean relations in the coming year.
Kim Jong Un skipped his usual annual New Year’s Speech, with his final report to the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) taking its place.
In that report, “break through head-on all the barriers to our advance” emerged as the overriding slogan for the new year. Even though Kim Jong Un hinted that he might break away from his promised moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and threatened to test a new strategic weapon, he did not formally bring an end to dialogue with the U.S.
President Moon Jae-in’s new year speech, it turn, confirmed that he would continue to seek engagement with the North, despite Pyongyang’s extreme insults last year, and stressed that he would try to find new ways to achieve economic cooperation with the North.
Given that the North repeatedly last year condemned South Korea for its excessive dependence on the U.S., Moon is likely trying to take a more forward-looking and independent approach.
So was there any common ground between the two leaders, and is there still a chance that the two could reconcile?
ENGAGEMENT (BARELY) SURVIVED
In confirming that he will push ahead with engagement with North Korea, Moon is showing a remarkable degree of patience with the country that has insulted him many times since April last year, using scornful expressions such as “even a boiled head of cow would laugh at him” and describing him as a “rare kind of shameless person.”
Chairman Kim Jong Un did not say anything about South Korea in his lengthy report to the plenum. Though this appears to be a setback, it might not be such a bad thing, if not a positive.
Had he mentioned South Korea, he may have been obliged to use harsh language. So, he likely intentionally avoided mention of the South so as to retain an element of ambiguity.
Kim also did not, notably, declare negotiations on denuclearization with the U.S. to be dead, nor did he withdraw his promises to denuclearize. There were a lot of signs that he might, but he did not, so another round of talks remains possible.
Moon is showing a remarkable degree of patience with the country that has insulted him many times since April last year
Denuclearization, he insisted, will only happen “if the U.S. persists in its policy hostile towards the DPRK.”
The DPRK will steadily develop “indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons,” he said, “until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy and a lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.”
So, these sentences can be paraphrased like this: if the U.S. stops its hostile policies, there will be denuclearization. The DPRK will not develop strategic weapons once the U.S. stops its hostile policies and a peace mechanism is in place.
THE NEED FOR RELIEF
It is significant to note that Kim Jong Un is not only keeping hopes for talks alive, but is also admitting that he badly needs to make a deal.
“It is true that we urgently need an external environment favorable for our economic construction, but we can never sell our dignity which we have so far defended as as valuable as our own life, in the hope of a gorgeous transformation.”
The “it is true” phrase is important because it was not necessary, considering the context of the sentence. It is possible to think that this was intentionally included for a certain purpose, likely to signal that there remains an appetite for a deal.
The sentence might be modified like this: we urgently want an external environment favorable for our economic construction and we will make a deal as long as we can retain our dignity. Kim Jong Un clearly remains interested in economic development: more than half of his 55-minute report concerned the issue.
President Moon Jae-in in his new year’s speech reaffirmed that he would push ahead with his engagement policy, aimed at achieving denuclearization and a peace regime on Korean peninsula.
The denuclearization issue is an urgent one for South Koreans: it isn’t acceptable for us to improve relations with the North while they have nuclear weapons and we don’t.
The issue affects our foreign relations, military burden, economic activities, national unity, etc. Denuclearization is a core part of our national interest and that’s why the Moon administration is making sure that it is one of our major foreign policy goals.
THE TRUMP FACTOR REMAINS ALIVE
The Trump factor may be dangerous or unpredictable in the United States and in many parts of the world. But it might be different for the Korean peninsula, if not positive.
Kim Jong Un in his speech at the plenum again chose not to directly attack Trump, and it’s clear he’d prefer another round of summit talks to a showdown. He might think that there is still a possibility that Trump will agree to his demands — namely, stopping hostile policies against the North.
Moon Jae-in also sees President Trump as representing a positive chance to achieve peace and denuclearization. It’s for this reason that Moon has earnestly tried to cooperate with the U.S. on foreign policy as it relates to North Korea, particularly in adhering to the international sanctions regime.
But despite some of the overlap in messaging, there remains big differences between the new years’ messages of the leaders of South Korea and North Korea and if the problems are not considered seriously, the chances of achieving denuclearization are diminished.
THE PRICE TAG CHANGES
North Korea has shifted its position in negotiations with the U.S. following last year’s Hanoi summit, when the North was ready to trade denuclearization for sanctions relief, alongside the normalization of relations and establishing a peace treaty: they proposed destroying the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in return for some sanctions relief.
Kim Jong Un is not only keeping hopes for talks alive, but is also admitting that he badly needs to make a deal
After negotiations collapsed, the North began to believe that the U.S. was not interested in deal making and that it was useless to propose bold actions in exchange for denuclearization. Instead, their position has changed: that its nuclear power can only be traded when its security concerns are resolved.
Lifting sanctions is not a matter for negotiations, Pyongyang now believes, but should naturally be included as the U.S. ends its hostile policy.
From the DPRK’s perspective, bargain sale season is over and the 70% discount offer is no longer effective. It’s not clear, however, whether South Korea or the U.S. have noticed.
One of the most serious issues between the two Koreas is that communications between the leaders of the two Koreas have been disrupted. North Korea does not answer calls from the South and the two Koreas can only communicate through public media outlets.
Communications have essentially been broken since the Hanoi summit. The North was disappointed, and it shifted strategy and reshuffled its top negotiators.
Previously, the North had been open to talking with the South, but Pyongyang was frustrated by Seoul’s lack of sympathy or companionship.
Kim has also been frustrated by the fact that the South has not shown any willingness or capability to overcome the economic sanctions regime against the North — despite Moon’s repeated hints that he would.
DRIFTING STARKLY APART
The new year’s messaging from Chairman Kim showed that he is moving towards the traditional position held by North Korea’s elites: the views shared in his plenum speech are more like the new year editorials under his father, Kim Jong Il, than anything new.
The flow of the narrative of North Korea’s traditional worldview goes like this: we are fighting against the formidable military giant of the U.S., the U.S. is threatening us with pressure and sanctions, the U.S. is not interested in a fair deal, and as a result the people should unite to win the fight and stay independent and self-sufficient.
Chairman Kim previously had different ideas, especially before the Hanoi summit, when it looked he believed that he might win a compromise with the U.S. on denuclearization and economic development. His priority was economic, not revolutionary.
But this world view has changed and the old revolutionary ideas dominate once again. The door for negotiations remains open, but the odds of a deal being made are very low.
President Moon’s case is the opposite. He should have changed his strategy towards North Korea, and he should have built bipartisan support for his policies in the domestic political theater.
Instead, he stuck to the same slogans, and the measures proposed in his new messages have proven futile for more than a year now. So, the distance between the two leaders grew even farther, and the chances for reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas have decreased.
Now it is up to President Moon and Chairman Kim to maximize their agreements — and minimize their disagreements — and move forward to improve relations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham