In his latest New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to hold out an olive branch to neighboring South Korea for the year ahead.
“We will actively pursue dialogue and improvement in ties between North and South Korea,” The New York Times reported Kim as saying in a speech seen in some quarters as striking a more conciliatory tone than past addresses.
On Tuesday, less than a fortnight later, inter-Korean relations lay in tatters as the sides blared propaganda at each other using loudspeakers situated along the heavily militarized border, the latest fallout from last week’s nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang.
While North Korea was widely believed to have exaggerated the scale and nature of Wednesday’s detonation, instead testing a much less powerful atomic weapon, its announcement nevertheless drew a strong rebuke from South Korea and much of the international community including the United States.
Analysts told Asia Times last week that even if the latest test was not a H-bomb, it could still help North Korea advance its nuclear capabilities, such as being able to mount a warhead on a missile.
North Korea switched on its loudspeakers on Tuesday to counter broadcasts from South Korea that began Friday, following the North’s announcement two days previously that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb.
As well as extolling the Kim regime, North Korea’s broadcasts were attacking South Korean President Park Geun-hye by name, the South’s Ministry of National Defense told local media. Park entered office in 2013 vowing to build trust with the North, a policy dubbed “trustpolitik,” and to prepare for Korean reunification.
Since her election, however, Park has been unable to avoid repeated confrontation with the North. Just a fortnight before her inauguration in February 2013, Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, provoking the ire of South Korea and new United Nations sanctions. In August last year, South Korea accused North Korea of planting land mines that maimed two of its soldiers.
Just as it did last week, it retaliated at the time with propaganda broadcasts, only ceasing after extracting an expression of regret from its neighbor.
South Korea’s loudspeakers, which officials claim can transmit sounds up to 15 miles, blare weather reports and K-pop, as well as messages denouncing the Kim regime.
Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University, told Asia Times that the latest tensions would make it difficult for Park to push her trust-building strategy for North Korea.
“It never really amounted to much anyway, but that’s out the window,” Kelly said. “The talk of reunification and Dresden doctrine (of preparing for reunification) and all that, that’s out the window, too.”
Kelly said he didn’t expect the nuclear test to change the usual pattern of South Korea responding tepidly to North Korean provocations. If Seoul wanted to react strongly, he said, it could for instance close the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex or target North Korean money held in Chinese banks.
“The North Koreans give the South Koreans a lot of chances to respond sharply, and they don’t,” he said. “I think South Korean public opinion, more than anything, wants North Korea to sort of drift away and become just like another Third World, hell-hole dictatorship far away from them.”
Regular oscillation between hostility and reconciliation is the norm in Seoul-Pyongyang relations, which remain defined by the Cold War-era division of the Korean Peninsula.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.