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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.
North Korea’s bizarre recent outburst over anti-regime leaflets, starting with Kim Yo Jong’s statement on June 4, sparked a tumultuous series of events.
The whole affair is now speedily fading into the background, however, following Kim Jong Un’s suspension of plans for “military action” against the South just a couple of weeks ago.
Here’s who gained and lost the most from the leaflet-launch saga.
CHAIRMAN KIM: BLOWING OFF STEAM
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has had pent-up rage and resentment against South Korean President Moon Jae-in following the February 2019 U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi.
Moon had recommended Kim participate in the summit, but in the end, the meeting with President Trump proved fruitless.
Yet Moon did not show any sense of regret or embarrassment concerning Hanoi’s poor result. He did reshuffle a few high-ranking officials in the North Korea policy sphere who were responsible for the failure, but he blamed nobody and kept talking about advancing peace on the Korean peninsula.
Chairman Kim has been trying to make the South Korean President understand his anger about the summit with low-grade insults delivered through his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
Kim’s disappointment with Moon was somewhat manifested, then, on June 16, when the four-story inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong was blown to smithereens.
Additionally, the North Korean leader managed to get the South Korean government to react as he had hoped: the Ministry of Unification announced that they would crack down on leaflet launches to the North, and Seoul did not respond to Pyongyang’s rhetoric with insults of their own.
The resignation of now-former unification minister Kim Yeon-chul could also be seen as evidence of the South’s regret for the recent deterioration in inter-Korean relations.
Another plus for Kim is that the major anti-South campaign launched in response to the leaflet launches may have helped strengthened loyalty to the regime, thereby creating a negative atmosphere putting pressure on potential defectors.
It wasn’t all rosy for Kim, though. He has now destroyed the personal trust between himself and President Moon, which will make it difficult to induce help from the South going forwards.
By insulting his elder, Kim has also gone down a notch in the estimations of South Koreans. His responses may also have been too explosive and emotional for North Koreans as well.
On the whole, however, Kim’s gains outweigh his losses, and so emerges the victor from this inter-Korean episode.
KIM YO JONG: SHOWING HER LEADERSHIP CHOPS
Through the leaflet campaign, Kim Yo Jong demonstrated her leadership skills to the world.
The weight of her words was evident when the inter-Korean liaison office was demolished. In her June 4 statement, she indicated that the North would do this in the near future, and just twelve days later it happened.
The leaflet launch response campaign was effectively planned, quickly executed, and sprucely finished. The tone of her statements was appropriate, and while tensions rose a little too quickly the situation did not derail.
The United Front Department (UFD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (GSKPA) moved as one team under her direction and name.
However, Kim also paid a price by insulting President Moon.
Two years ago, the North Korean people welcomed Moon’s 2018 visit to the other side of the DMZ. He delivered a speech to 150,000 Pyongyangites and climbed the legendary Mount Paektu with Chairman Kim Jong Un.
Attacking Moon was a strange thing for Kim Yo Jong to do, as by doing so she insulted a companion of the Supreme Leader. This could lead to the uncomfortable interpretation that Kim Jong Un made a big mistake two years ago by meeting the South Korean leader.
Kim Yo Jong also damaged her reputation among South Koreans by insulting an elder.
THE UFD AND MFA: BACK IN BUSINESS
The UFD was marginalized in North Korea after the 2019 Hanoi summit. After an intensive policy review, it seems that Pyongyang’s top leadership concluded the UFD had prepared poorly and made the mistake of following the South’s recommendations too readily.
Some of the department’s top officials were subsequently blamed or punished. Jang Geum Chol, the department director, had shrunk into the background since he took his position in April last year.
Recently, however, he has delivered some major statements and demonstrated that the department is fully functioning.
The MFA is also active once again after remaining dormant for over six months. Though the ministry took charge of foreign policymaking after the Hanoi collapse, it was also blamed for not getting any concessions from the U.S. last year despite eight months of effort.
Minister Ri Son Gwon and director-general for U.S. affairs Kwon Jong Gun showed the MFA is alive and well through their statements, and first vice minister Choe Son Hui finally reemerged following her over-six-month absence from North Korean media.
Choe’s surfacing suggests Chairman Kim is slightly less angry at the MFA’s poor performance as of late and that she has now been sufficiently reprimanded for it.
MOON JAE-IN: PUBLIC HUMILIATION
The target of the North’s abuse, President Moon was seriously damaged by the leaflet episode. And, as the representative of the South Korean state and people, his loss of face affects them as well.
It was especially shocking that the North’s attacker was Kim Yo Jong, who had initially had a positive relationship with the South Korean leader.
Moon, to a significant extent, has seen his diplomatic legacy blow up before his eyes: literally, in the case of the Kaesong liaison office.
This was the most symbolic expression of the North’s rage; the two Korean leaders’ commitment to a new era of peace and prosperity was shattered along with that most symbolic scene.
To prevent all this from happening, he could have initiated a policy review after the Hanoi summit had collapsed, as the North did. He could have fired one or two minister-level staff to show regret over the result of the summit. He could have implemented the ban on sending leaflets from the South across the DMZ.
But the President only did these things after the leaflet fiasco had already wrapped up, making this failure an especially bitter pill to swallow.
KIM YEON-CHUL: OUT WITH THE OLD…
Kim Yeon-chul was nominated for the unification minister position in early March last year, just after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. North Korea began expressing its displeasure of the South after Kim’s official appointment in April.
As inter-Korean tensions rose, Kim lacked contact with the North, despite being in charge of this policy area.
He was famous for his various ideas to improve North-South relations, but there was never a chance for these to be realized because Pyongyang never responded.
He likely decided to resign because of his failure to prevent the leaflet launches or because of the helpful signals his departure would send to the North.
Nevertheless, as he said upon leaving, his responsibility was too great and his authority too little. If he is right about this imbalance, the incoming minister may be doomed to the same unproductive fate.
This is why South Korea must conduct a policy review to identify the problems in its Northern policy and produce alternatives to help fix the situation.
SUH HOON, PARK JIE-WON, LEE IN-YOUNG: …AND IN WITH THE NEW
Not everyone in South Korea came away with a loss from June’s events.
Suh Hoon moved from head of the National Intelligence Service to National Security Advisor around two weeks after the end of the leaflet debacle.
He was originally the strongest contender for the job in the early days of the Moon administration but was dispatched to the intelligence service because he was the only one who could control and reform the agency.
Suh’s latest appointment thus marks the completion of his three-year detour.
Park Jie-won has been nominated to replace Suh. He had served as a congressman until recently, but nobody expected him to become the intelligence chief since he was a member of an opposition party.
He was, however, an emissary to the North twenty years ago under former President Kim Dae-jung. And he was in the progressive camp with Moon Jae-in for a long time.
Designated unification minister Lee In-young has been in the running for the job probably because he was a major leader of the student democracy movement in the 1980s.
Thanks to the opening created by Kim Yeon-chul, Lee emerges as one of the clear winners from recent developments.
ACTIVISTS AND DEFECTORS: A ROUGH RIDE
As Pyongyang was strongly denouncing the leaflets, Seoul reconfirmed that the launches would be prohibited.
Defector-activist Park Sang-hak, the leader of Fighters for a Free North Korea, came under fire from the Ministry of Unification, who argue that the leaflet launches are impeding peace efforts between North and South. Park may face punishment for his actions.
Also, criticism from North Korea of defectors that send leaflets could also expand to harsher words against regular defectors going forward.
It’s possible that, through the events of June, Kim Jong Un may have sufficiently vented his anger and readied himself for his next move. And perhaps President Moon has understood what Kim has been trying to communicate through the North’s recent actions.
A change in the leaders’ minds may create a better environment for inter-Korean reconciliation and rediscover momentum to move North and South forward to their original goals.
Edited by James Fretwell
North Korea's bizarre recent outburst over anti-regime leaflets, starting with Kim Yo Jong's statement on June 4, sparked a tumultuous series of events.
The whole affair is now speedily fading into the background, however, following Kim Jong Un's suspension of plans for "military action" against the South just a couple of weeks ago.