It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Kim Yeon-chul, Seoul’s point man on inter-Korean affairs.
The newly-minted Unification Minister – he was appointed in April – deployed surprising candor when he admitted to correspondents on Tuesday the powerlessness of South Korea to strengthen inter-Korean ties amid now deadlocked Pyongyang-Washington relations.
Viewing the big-picture outlook for South Korea, he said: “The Korean economy is facing the risk of slow growth, and as the term ‘demographic cliff’ explains, the working age population is gradually decreasing.”
Given this, he spoke of the opportunity for a “peace economy” on the Korean peninsula. However, Kim admitted those grandiose inter-Korean plans are not the core issue of the moment.
In a bleak phrase he would repeatedly reuse in a 90-minute briefing and question-and-answer session, he said: “At this point, the resumption of [North Korea]-US negotiation is the important priority.”
All systems slow
Turning to the topic of the recovery of war remains in the DMZ, he said: “The recovery project is still ongoing, though the level of cooperation has decreased.”
In fact, the efforts underway in one sector of the DMZ involve South Korean, US and international troops undertaking minefield clearance and searching for remains. However, these operations are now taking place only in the southern half of the DMZ, not the northern half, which would require cooperation with North Korea’s military.
“The most important thing is to make sure the US and [North Korea] can resume dialog,” he repeated. “Once this is resumed and they make an agreement, we might be able to move onto the next level of cooperation.”
Seoul has made no secret of its enthusiasm to restart two shuttered inter-Korean projects inside North Korea, the Kaesong Industrial Zone and the Mount Kumgang Tourism Zone. Seoul also wants to reconnect cross-border railways and roads and has carried out related research in North Korea.
Those transport corridors would offer South Korea direct land access to Eurasia, ushering in a likely logistics boom.
Regarding these issues, and potential South Korea investments in North Korea, Kim said: “The ‘new economy’ initiative can only happen when there is progress between the US and North Korea.” He added that “a lot of conditions have to be met” before that can come to pass.
Kim’s statements were brutally frank admissions from a senior member of a government that has striven to act as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington.
Then and now
Perhaps adding to Kim’s woes is timing: Only one year ago, sunlit uplands beckoned.
North Korea had charmed the world with its 2018 Winter Olympics appearance and in a spectacular charm offensive, leader Kim Jong Un summitted with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In June, he prepared for the first summit ever between a leader of North Korea and a US president in Singapore.
There were real hopes. Peninsula denuclearization, a Korean War peace treaty and the opening up of the North Korean economy to South Korean and global investors all beckoned. Those heady hopes are now largely dashed.
After both key parties agreed to a broad, outline statement in Singapore, senior officials and working-level groups failed to find common ground between Pyongyang and Washington. A promised Kim visit to Seoul fizzled. A second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February failed to deliver an outcome.
The outcome of the Hanoi summit in Hanoi “gave us new challenges,” Kim conceded. Now, the future of the Pyongyang-Washington engagement process is uncertain.
Still, at a time when Seoul was ballyhooing the opening of three “DMZ Peace Trails” – in which civilians will be able to hike along the southern fence of the tense border area and take a brief step into a South Korean army post inside the DMZ – Kim was keen to talk up modest progress.
In his two months in office, he had managed to meet North Korean officials once, he said, during a visit to the inter-Korean government liaison office established near Kaesong, five kilometers north of the DMZ.
And after the 2018 inter-Korean agreements on demilitarizing tense areas of the Yellow Sea where maritime clashes have occurred, he noted: “Fishing hours have increased and the fishing ground has expanded since last April.”
Despite international sanctions, he said “there are a number of options” for inter-Korean cooperation, such as meetings between divided family members.
Seoul is now mulling a dispatch of $8 million of humanitarian aid to North Korea via the UN’s World Food Program. Humanitarian aid does not breach sanctions. However, there are questions over whether such aid is actually needed.
Shooting down widespread reports of falling rice prices in the country, Kim said that related data only came from certain areas of North Korea, and that seasonal price fluctuations could explain the surprisingly low prices.
He also said that despite some concerns in the international community about the final destination of aid to North Korea, “there is a general consensus in the international community that the WFP has advanced means of monitoring within North Korea.”
Shake-up in the North
Asked about recent global media reports, which picked up a story from a conservative South Korean outlet with a poor record of analyzing regime developments, about a purge in the North Korean leadership – claims that look extremely dubious given the recent appearance of reportedly purged officials – he counseled prudence.
“We have to be more careful when covering issues concerning North Korea,” Kim advised.
Still, he admitted that shake-ups are underway inside Pyongyang’s corridors of power.
“After the Hanoi summit, many dialogs were suspended and North Korea is having internal policy reviews,” he said. “Likewise inter-Korean relations have been suspended as well, but we are trying to resume dialog.”
US President Donald Trump will visit South Korea following the June 28-29 G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, but it is not clear whether, during that visit, South Korean President Moon will be able to convince him to re-open negotiations with Kim.
The last summit between Moon and Trump, in Washington in April, produced no significant outcome either in terms of Pyongyang-Washington, or Pyongyang-Seoul talks.