SEOUL – Are North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his tough-talking sister launching a last-minute charm offensive on late-term South Korean President Moon Jae-in before he exits office?
Recent indications suggest so. This month, North Korea made global headlines by conducting three separate missile tests: “strategic” cruise missiles, train-launched ballistic missiles and most recently, a radar-evading hypersonic missile.
But missile launches are only one arm of the isolated state’s current global outreach.
On Wednesday, Kim – who apparently did not attend any of the missile tests in person – proffered olive branches to those south of the DMZ. The North Korean leader may have been aiming his messaging specifically at the engagement-minded South Korean president.
Speaking before the Supreme People’s Assembly, leader Kim expressed his intention that “North-South communication lines that had been cut off due to the deteriorated inter-Korean relations are restored first from early October,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, according to reports that monitor Northern media in the South.
Cross-border communication lines are one barometer of inter-Korean relations. The hotlines were cut by the North last year amid tense relations, then restored this July. However, the North has reportedly refused to answer regular daily calls on the lines in protest at joint South Korea-US military drills that took place over the summer.
A hotline restoration would be “part of the efforts for realizing the expectations and desire of the entire Korean nation to see the earlier recovery of the North-South relations from the present deadlock,” Kim said.
“We have neither aim nor reason to provoke South Korea and no idea to harm it,” Kim said in the same speech, which also included a critique of hostile US relations.
Still, Kim warned that an improved relationship “depends on the attitude of the South Korean authorities.”
The dovish statements by the national leader follow hot on the heels of a similar talk from Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, whose star in the regime continues to rise. State media announced on Thursday that she had been promoted to the State Affairs Commission.
The commission, a de facto cabinet and the state’s top-level policy body, is chaired by Kim and functions as his personal brain trust.
On September 25, in a surprise turnaround from her previously hawkish stance, Kim Yo Jong characterized Moon’s idea of an end-of-war declaration as an “admirable” idea.
Moon, in his last address to the UN General Assembly on September 21, called for an official end to the Korean War, which wound down with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, in 1953.
In his speech, he proposed “that three parties of the two Koreas and the US, or four parties of the two Koreas, the US and China, come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over.
When the parties involved in the Korean War stand together and proclaim an end to the war, I believe we can make irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”
Kim Yo Jong’s apparently positive response to Moon’s suggestion was seized upon in the South. Unification Minister Lee In-young called it a “very useful” and “meaningful” path toward building mutual trust.
For Moon, who exits his single term in office next May after a presidential election next March, the Kims’ offers to restore communications and improve relations may represent large and juicy carrots.
As matters stand, his presidential legacy looks likely to be defined by his deft handling – perhaps the deftest handling among G10 democracies – of the Covid-19 crisis.
He can also point to an impressive economic performance, underwritten by South Korea’s strong global brands, its diverse export portfolio, a surging start-up sector and a series of government stimulus packages.
Moreover, both he and his family appear to have swerved the corruption scandals that have entrapped previous presidents. And his “Mr Nice Guy” cred was recently reinforced when the animal-loving president suggested that the time was ripe to consider ending Koreans’ habit of dining on dogs.
But Moon’s central interest has always been cross-border engagement. He has never looked happier than when engaging the Kims.
In 2018, he met Kim Yo Jong at the presidential Blue House and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The same year, he had two summits with her brother, at the DMZ then during a triumphant trip to Pyongyang, where he addressed 100,000 North Koreans in the city’s May Day Stadium.
Moon’s 2018 efforts even came close to cracking decades’ worth of ice that had built up between Pyongyang and Washington. But the moves to broker relations foundered when then-US President Donald Trump turned down Kim’s offers of partial denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief during their summit in Hanoi in 2019.
Since then, North Korea-US relations have returned to their customary state of deep chill.
South Korea, heavily dependent on its US ally and required to implement UN sanctions, has limited room for sovereign political maneuvers with its Northern counterpart. As a result, Seoul has similarly found its relations with Pyongyang back in the freezer.
Even so, Moon retains a final flicker of hope, he told the UN last week.
“I will make ceaseless efforts until my very last day in office” to build shared prosperity and cooperation on the Korean peninsula, he said. That flicker of hope may now have been rewarded by the signals emanating from Pyongyang.
The Kims’ mission
What to make of Pyongyang’s current dual-fisted approach – missile launches combined with conciliatory statements toward the South? Some see it as typical North Korean carrot-and-stick tactics, or a “wedge” strategy designed to leverage Seoul away from Washington.
According to Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Kim is “probing what benefits can be extracted at the 11th hour of the Moon administration.”
As the wider world begins its long awakening from two years of Covid-19 hibernation, and an isolated, poverty-wracked North Korea looks toward an uneasy future, South Korea could be a potential foreign policy win.
Any such win, even if limited and temporary, could defuse at least one element in the complex matrix of threats looming over Pyongyang.
Lynn Turk retired US diplomat with experience dealing with North Korea noted that the Kim regime faced four existential threats: “Domestic unrest; bossy China becoming really, really bossy China; the militarily dangerous US; and the culturally dangerous South Korea.”
These threats present the Kims with “a mad juggle trying to keep any one of the four from falling.”
Among them, the late-term Moon administration in Seoul may represent the path of least resistance and could reduce Pyongyang’s lop-sided dependence upon Beijing.
“Have to suck up to China too much for economic reasons?” Turk asked. “Time to get some relief from South Korea, if you can, without looking too weak.”
Gaining that relief could be relatively simple for the North, given the South’s stated eagerness to both communicate with it and provide it with humanitarian aid.
“Pyongyang might be willing to take the low-cost and easily reversible step of restarting regular communications with Seoul,” said Easley.
He added that the re-establishment – or rather, rebuilding – of an inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ, could provide a conduit for humanitarian assistance.
The South Korean-built building was the most significant physical fruit of the Moon administration’s 2018 dalliance with Pyongyang. But in June 2020, the then empty building was blown up on the orders of Kim Yo Jong, after North Korean anger at propaganda balloons being floated over the border by activists in the South.
And if Kim actually re-engages Moon in person, Pyongyang could feasibly win the longer-term benefit of compelling the next occupant of the Blue House to follow Moon’s lead.
“Another inter-Korean summit before Moon leaves office … could lock the next administration into continuing pro-engagement policies,” Easley said.