Not quite Seoul mates – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea President Moon Jae-in in a friendly embrace at their second summit in North Korea. Photo: The Blue House
Amid an uproar over an alleged secret nuclear plant deal, South Korea's right wing fears that President Moon Jae-in is too keen to embrace North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: The Blue House

South Korea revealed on Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had re-opened personal communications with President Moon Jae-in via a conciliatory, coronavirus-related letter.

It was received by the Blue House on Wednesday when Kim, “conveyed his message of comfort to the South Korean people who are battling against the outbreak of Covid-19,” according to a note sent to foreign reporters in Seoul from the presidential office.

Kim “expressed his frustration that there isn’t much he can do at the moment,” underlined “his unwavering friendship and trust toward President Moon” and expressed  “… candid thoughts on the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula.”  

The Blue House said Moon responded with a letter of his own on Thursday, although there was no hint of the content. The progressive Moon has championed cross-border engagement and earlier in his presidency, it was his centerpiece policy.

Relations between the two Koreas have been downbeat – most recently with both sides exchanging verbal barbs after Pyongyang did a short-range ballistic missile test launch on March 2. In the months prior, northern state media has lambasted Seoul, which has remained firmly in the US camp by refusing to breach international sanctions, obviating any cross-border economic engagement.

The North has also ignored repeated requests for Kim to reciprocate Moon’s triumphant September 2018 visit to Pyongyang with a return visit to Seoul or elsewhere in South Korea.

Given the icy relations between Pyongyang, on the one hand, and Seoul and Washington on the other, the surprise letter’s timing may provide a boost for both Moon and for US President Donald Trump.

Electoral ploy?

According to US media, Trump – preoccupied with domestic issues – has made clear he is not interested in a summit with Kim before the November election. But South Korea’s National Assembly elections are due in April, and renewed cross-border relations could feasibly assist Moon’s party as it faces off against conservatives at the ballot box.

One expert, discussing how talks with North Korea have waxed and waned for decades, cited electoral cycles in both South Korea and the United States as possible motives for Kim’s outreach, and its timing.

“The North Koreans are reaching out to the South Koreans because the Americans are not talking to them – and that is good for Trump who has just made peace with the Taliban,” Mike  Breen, author of The New Koreans and a biographer of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, told Asia Times.

“Moon’s party could suffer [at the ballot box] because of its handling of the coronavirus, and Moon’s popularity has reached an all-time low,” Breen added. “So any progress on the North Korean front would be welcome from Moon’s point of view.”

Separately, a US official, speaking recently off the record, wondered whether the coronavirus outbreak could potentially provide the international community with the opportunity to re-engage North Korea and build trust via medical aid or consulting.

North Korea has not yet reported a single case, but is taking significant precautions – including isolating the foreign community in Pyongyang, warning citizens not to eat out together and disinfecting public transport. While there has been no confirmation, rumors and unconfirmed media reports in South Korea have alleged cases north of the DMZ.

Other news was less positive on Thursday. South Korea’s Covid-19 cases rose to 6,088 – a day-on-day increase of 467 – while Japan’s rose to 331.

South Korea designated the southeastern city of Gyeongsan, which is adjacent to both Daegu and Cheongdo County, where the vast majority of the nation’s Covid-19 cases are clustered, as the nation’s third “special care zone.” That designation enables extra medical care and staffing.

Capital Seoul had 103 cases as of Thursday, largely centered around a hospital and an apartment complex.

South Korean confirmed Covid-19 cases

Jan. 20: First case

Tues Feb 18: Woman connected to Shincheonji Church tests positive

Wed Feb. 19: Total 51 cases.

Thurs Feb. 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday Feb. 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday Feb. 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday Feb. 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday Feb. 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday Feb. 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday Feb. 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday Feb 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Friday: Feb 28: New cases: 571.Total: 2,337

Saturday 29 Feb:  New cases: 813. Total: 3,150

Sunday 1 March: New cases: 586. Total: 3,736

Monday 2 March: New cases: 549. Total: 4,335

Tuesday 3 March: New cases: 851. Total: 5,186

Wednesday 4 March: New cases: 435. Total: 5,621

Thursday 5 March: New cases: 467. Total: 6,088

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The KCDC releases figures at various times of the day. The above chart is collated from figures released at close of business, daily.

Game on

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Tokyo – which is not allowing spectators at national sporting events – made clear that Japan was not considering canceling or postponing the Summer Olympics, set to begin in late July.

Ex-prime minister and Chairman of the National Olympic Committee Yoshiro Mori told reporters Wednesday that Japan was “totally not considering” any change to the Games.

Asked when there might be more clarity on the issue, he replied: “I am not God, so I don’t know,” according to Reuters in Tokyo.

The International Olympic Committee has not yet suggested any change is upcoming. On Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach urged athletes to continue their preparations.