One of the many Korean phrases I feel would enrich our language, and which deserve a place in it much more than je ne sais quoi and mi casa es su casa, is the wonderfully pithy almyŏn mwo hae? Usually a reply to another question, it means, “What’ll you do if you know?”
I feel the urge to say it whenever I encounter Westerners intensely interested in the rise of North Korean Big Shot A or the decline of Big Shot B who cannot explain why it matters. At most I hear something like, “The guy spent time overseas, so he’s more likely to be a reformer” – a line of reasoning that should have been laid to rest in 2012.
It has therefore been exasperating over the past week to read so much speculation about the perceived change in Kim Yo-jong’s stature. Something tells me this could be the cue for the Washington branch of the Air Koryo Mileage Club to dust off its hawks-doves myth again.
Or maybe not? One good thing to have come out of the Trump-Kim summits has been the weakening of that set’s claim to authority, i.e., that it understands the dictatorship uniquely well because it has engaged in talks with a few officials.
But I started this post in response to something I have been asked several times since the demolition of the liaison office in Kaesong. I might as well reproduce, with one or two minor changes, the relevant page from a long, off-the-record talk I gave at a hotel in Seoul on Thursday, June 18:
… All of this raises the question, an especially topical one, of why the Kim regime is so abusive toward the friendliest, most nationalist South Korean government in history. Now there has long been in the North a very real contempt for the South Korean left, the kind that radicals always feel for moderates no matter how obsequious the latter might be.
Believe it or not, there were always more South Koreans willing to work with the North than it was willing to work with; the history of the underground in the 1960s and 1970s is replete with tales of how this or that Kim disciple got cold-shouldered by the DPRK embassy in East Berlin and had to go begging for funds in Japan instead.
The North Korean regime, which forgets nothing, is also cynically aware of how the South’s ruling elite stands to benefit from the grand inter-Korean projects it likes to posit in the center of the relationship. That whole side of the Sunshine Policy years is of course a taboo topic in South Korea, but it’s hard to understand the North’s cavalier treatment of so-called progressive governments unless one knows that history.
We can certainly infer a certain contempt and mistrust from the way Kim Jong Il talks to Roh Moo-hyun in the transcripts of the 2007 summit. It also appears that when Moon Jae-in was in Pyongyang in September 2018 he promised Kim Jong Un certain things, probably in regard to the US, that he has so far been unable to deliver.
But let’s also keep in mind a fact that never receives enough attention, namely, that the North owes its security not to nuclear weapons, but to American fears that even a minor strike on the North would result in devastating retaliation against Seoul.
Any consistent outward improvement of inter-Korean relations naturally casts doubt on the automaticity of such retaliation and therefore undermines the North’s security. The consequence is that the Kim regime must walk a tightrope.
On the one hand it must project reasonableness and an openness to negotiations, while on the other it has to project great volatility and excitability, a readiness to stop at nothing.
Whatever goes on between the two Koreas behind the scenes, therefore, their outward relationship is never allowed to get too far ahead of the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. This is why there was a sudden ostentatious freeze-over of inter-Korean relations after the “axis of evil” speech in 2002.
On the face of it this made no sense, the 2000 summit declaration having made clear that the two Koreas would work together regardless of what outside powers said or did. But the perceived increase in the danger of an American attack forced Kim Jong Il to deny that the North-South relationship had improved at all.
Something comparable has happened since the failure of the Hanoi summit. The liaison office was an embryonic version of confederation HQ, as the left-wing press said publicly when it opened two years ago. Back then, of course, the show of inter-Korean partnership was expected to create momentum that would bowl over Donald Trump.
That strategy having since failed, it made more security sense to get rid of the building. The North will not want another ostentatious monument to inter-Korean cooperation until the Americans lift sanctions at the very least.
The Moon government understands all this, which is why it stays on course. These outwardly bad periods in the relationship have the added advantage of reassuring the Americans and the South Korean mainstream that Moon is not too close to Pyongyang after all. The insults heaped on him do not hurt his popularity that much here, because he has not been spending significant sums of money on unilateral aid.
The average South Korean does not even see a problem in his own government binding itself to agreements that North Korea is flagrantly violating. If you don’t believe me, wait until the relevant laws are passed in the National Assembly in the coming months, to the general indifference of the public.
South Koreans do not identify enough with their “unloved republic” to feel anger when the North humiliates it, and they are reassured enough by the military alliance with the United States not to worry about where all this appeasement will lead.
B.R. Myers is professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and the author of North Korea’s Juche Myth. This article, originally published June 20 by Sthele Press, is republished with permission.