Seoul’s mayor was cagey over whether his city would permit downtown demonstrations during an anticipated first visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a man who some in the South consider a reformer who holds the key to peninsula peace, but who others consider a national enemy and one of the world’s worst dictators.
With Kim’s visit expected to take place after an upcoming North Korea-US summit, right-wing groups in the South have vowed to demonstrate – and one National Assemblyman is even demanding that Kim be arrested if he dares to visit.
Will he or won’t he?
“[South] Korea is a free democracy, so there could be pros and cons, [but] people have the freedom to express their opinions – this is the country and the city we have,” Park Won-soon, Seoul’s third term mayor, said in a press conference with foreign reporters on Monday.
He noted that “there could be demonstrations against … I understand that.” He made clear that the issue had been raised with the North Korean leadership at the last inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in October 2018, which Park attended.
“The people in North Korea know about his possibility, the fact that there are some protests or demonstrations against his visit,” he said. “I don’t think this will be a problem.”
After the October summit the Blue House, the South Korean presidential office, stated that Kim would visit Seoul in December 2018. That would have been historic. No North Korean leader has yet set foot on South Korean soil, though three inter-Korean summits have taken place in Pyongyang.
However, there have been persistent rumors that Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather, came briefly south during the early days of the Korean War.
The ‘inevitable’ visit
However, Kim was a no-show in December, for reasons which remain unexplained. Some believe the summit was put off until after a second North Korea-US summit had taken place. That is now expected in late February at a location to be decided.
Park called the visit “inevitable” and said he expected it “shortly after” the North Korea-US summit. Reports in South Korea indicated that Kim could come to Seoul on March 1.
In the event of a visit to Seoul, Park, who hails from the same left-leaning party as Moon, said he would be happy to “serve as a guide” to Kim. Given ongoing talks on cross-border rail interconnections, Park said he would like to show him Seoul Station – only a one-hour ride from Pyongyang, if trains do start running across the DMZ.
Last October Kim expressed an interest in upgrading the water in Pyongyang’s Taedong River, so Park suggested a visit to a Seoul water-treatment facility would make sense. Park – the longest-serving mayor of Seoul – also said he would like to guide the North Korean head of state to “very good restaurants and secret places that not many people know of – for example, one of my favorite haunts.”
Park admitted, however, that it would be unlikely for Kim to be able to spend so much time in his company.
The mayor’s remarks about getting chummy with a North Korean leader were in synch with a new dynamic becoming visible in South Korea amid the conciliatory cross-border ambiance that took root in 2018.
Small pro-North Korean groups have been spotted around Seoul – under previous conservative administrations, such signs of support for the state would almost certainly have been suppressed under the anti-communist National Security Law.
Park was cagey on whether he would permit protests to take place against Kim in central Seoul.
Gwanghwamun Plaza, close to the presidential Blue House, provided the setting for the massive protests that unseated ex-President Park Geun-hye in 2016-2017. City Hall Plaza, in the heart of downtown, and Seoul Station Plaza, are also popular locations for the city’s highly visible demonstrator communities.
Lew Han-jin, a spokesman for the minority Korea Patriots Party, noted that right-wing groups have held about 100 Saturday demonstrations in Seoul – all with the agreement of authorities.
Asked whether he would permit such demonstrations during Kim’s visit, Park said the answer would depend upon related laws.
In actual fact, it is local governments – such as Seoul’s – that, in concert with local police forces, have considerable say in whether demonstrations are permitted, a fact City Hall officials confirmed to Asia Times after the press conference.
Right wingers prepare
Not all South Koreans share Park’s positive opinion of Kim – a situation that Park referred to as “South-South conflict” over the politics of reconciliation with the North.
“North Korea leaders are always very deceptive – or demonic!” said Cho Young-hwan, a retiree who helps organize rallies of Taegguki Warriors – right-wing groups who wave the Taegguki, or national flag – in protests nationwide.
Kim’s Seoul visit is “a tactic to occupy South Korea with some kind of propaganda of peace,” Cho added. “That is not his real nature or profound mind, it is a well-planned strategy to make South Koreans confused.”
Cho told Asia Times that in the event of a visit by the North Korean leader, he was confident of rallying 300,000-500,000 protesters. Lew was more conservative, expecting 300,000 to turn out to demonstrate against Kim.
Even for a nation where protester numbers can top the million mark, that would provide a major organizational challenge for police forces, adding to the unprecedented security issues that a North Korean leader’s visit would represent.
And even though North Korean state media is closely controlled, such visible protests would be difficult to ignore – and could be a PR black eye for Kim. Some are mulling even stronger moves.
Korea Patriot’s Party National Assemblyman Cho Won-jin said Kim was “free to enter South Korea, but not to leave,” Cho’s international spokesperson told Asia Times. “We would do everything we can do to bring him to justice,” spokesman Lew added, citing, “the crimes Kim has committed against North Koreans’ human rights – and also against South Koreans and Japanese abductees.”
However, Cho is his party’s only lawmaker, indicating there is little chance of him getting his way, even if right-wing lawmakers from other parties defected to him or voted with him, in the 300-member National Assembly.
Indeed, House Speaker Moon Hee-sang said he would be in favor of Kim addressing the National Assembly if he visits South Korea. “We are willing to provide this opportunity to him,” Moon told foreign reporters in December. “We should not be narrow-minded.”
Whether Kim, who has no experience in delivering speeches in front of potentially hostile audiences, would wish to do that is open to question.