SEOUL – Is a shock outbreak of peace and love about to descend upon the Korean Peninsula? Or have the politics of cynicism just accelerated into temporary overdrive?
In what may be the last hurrah for the last shreds of inter-Korean amity, a message of hope for a new round of reconciliation or alternatively a crafty ploy to sow discord in the South, the leaders of the two Koreas have reportedly recently been in contact by mail.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is set to leave office in just over two weeks, dispatched a letter to his northern counterpart Kim Jong Un on Wednesday. The response was surprisingly swift as Kim wrote back to Moon the next day, according to North Korean state media, which was monitored by media in Seoul.
Time is of the essence: Moon’s constitutionally mandated single term in office winds up on May 9. The liberal Moon hands over the reins of power to conservative President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10.
The letter exchange comes as all regional players are ramping up tension with tactics that range from military exercises to missile tests to the bulldozing of iconic facilities.
But pundits don’t believe Kim is about to pivot away from weapons tests and return to the negotiating table anytime soon. Instead, they say, he is seeking to discomfit the incoming Yoon administration.
Jitter-o-meter on the uptick
Yoon has made clear he is far less interested in bromancing Kim than was Moon. Likewise, across the Pacific, US President Joe Biden shares none of his predecessor Donald Trump’s taste for chummy summitry with Kim.
With neither Seoul nor Washington holding or planning any talks with North Korea, the peninsula’s security status is looking wobbly. Those wobbles are reflected in a recent uptick in military moves at all points of the compass.
Joint South Korean-US computer-simulated military drills got underway this week. Those follow naval drills conducted by Japanese and US forces in the Sea of Japan last week.
It was revealed on Thursday (April 21) that South Korea this week tested two submarine-launched ballistic missiles – a class of weapon North Korea also covets and is developing. Both missiles, fired from a submerged submarine in the Yellow Sea, hit designated but unidentified targets 400 kilometers away, according to Yonhap news agency, quoting government sources.
It is not just Seoul, Tokyo and Washington who are flexing muscles.
Pyongyang has conducted 13 missile tests so far in 2022 – a sizzling launch tempo, even by North Korean standards. Moreover, last month, North Korea tested an ICBM – a class of weapon it had not fired since 2017 – ending a self-imposed moratorium.
That moratorium had paved the way for Kim’s unprecedented diplomatic outreach in 2018, which saw him summiting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Moon and Trump.
But since the failure of his summit with Trump in Hanoi in 2019, and the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020, Kim has hunkered down at home. He has also sealed his borders in what may be the world’s most watertight national quarantine measures.
Now, with reports of recent activity at North Korea’s underground nuclear test site, some analysts fear that Pyongyang is preparing an atomic test.
At a 2021 party congress, North Korea announced a range of new arms to be developed, including tactical nuclear warheads. Thus far, it has only tested the much larger and more destructive strategic nuclear devices.
And Pyongyang has been ruffling Seoul’s feathers in other areas.
There are reports that North Korea has this month been demolishing South Korean-built tourism facilities, including a hotel and a golf course. Those facilities lie inside North Korea at the scenic Mount Kumgang, just north of the DMZ on the peninsula’s east coast. They were opened in a spate of inter-Korean amity in 1998.
Those facilities, and the inter-Korean tourism that serviced them, were closed down in 2008 after a South Korean visitor was shot dead by a North Korean soldier – apparently in error.
A restart of the tourist project, as well as that of a South Korean-built light industrial park near Kaesong, just north of the DMZ in the peninsula’s west, are perennial hopes held by pro-engagement South Koreans.
However, North Korea has refused to respond to South Korean calls, via inter-Korean liaison hotlines, for an explanation of the demolitions.
It is not clear via what mechanism the letters were delivered with such apparent speed.
While North Korea occasionally disconnects inter-Korean communications as a protest against one policy or another, or simply fails to respond to South Korean calls or faxes, it is understood that the two countries’ intelligence services are in constant contact.
Presidential officials customarily decline to answer reporters’ questions about the direct hotline that links the leaders of the two Koreas: How often, or even whether it is used, is a guarded secret.
Regardless of the channel or format of the messages, Moon, in his letter, urged Kim to swiftly restart talks with the United States and also to open communications with President-elect Yoon, according to South Korean reports quoting Moon’s spokesperson.
Since 2019, Kim has appeared to delegate the role of hawk to his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who often fires barbs at the South via state media, while reserving a more statesmanlike role for himself.
Hence, Kim’s reply was pragmatic, but also offered possible hope for the future.
“Though much is left desired, my belief remains unchanged that if the South and the North pour sincerity in based on efforts made so far, inter-Korean relations can move forward as much as one wants,” his letter read.
Letters of (ill) intent?
Questions hang over Kim’s intentions, regarding both responding with such alacrity and then revealing that response in state media. Given that his economy is believed to have been devastated by the loss of trade with China from Covid-related border closures, could Kim be u-turning back to diplomacy?
Not likely, one analyst opines.
“He has not exhausted the escalation pathway – he has not sent a missile over Japan, or conducted a nuclear test – so he still has a few steps to go,” Chris Green, Korean Peninsula analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times. “It would be weird to me if they pivoted back to diplomacy now. If they came back in 4-5 months, that would make more sense.”
Moreover, while emergency aid is always up for grabs, any larger economic package from the South looks unlikely.
“The offer of humanitarian assistance is always on the table and the US supports that, so if Kim wanted that from South Korea, it is available,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at the Seoul-based Asan Institute think tank. “The reason it has not happened is Kim wanted something more tangible, and larger scale, which would affect sanctions.”
These factors suggest that the letters – and, especially, Pyongyang’s public disclosure of the exchange via media – may be designed to stir the ever-spicy and always-simmering stew of Seoul politics.
“What is interesting is that Moon sent the first letter but it was the North Koreans who went public,” Go told Asia Times. “I think that is because North Korea wants to create discord between the outgoing and incoming administrations.”
“This will lead to clashes between those [in South Korea] who believe in containment, and those who believe in engagement,” he said. “It sets the scene for Yoon to respond, and perhaps to be blamed for poor relations later on. I think they have thrown a cat among the pigeons.”