As power shifts in South Korea from the conservatives to the liberals for the first time in nine years, the North Korean regime and its citizens are pondering what changes will come to the inter-Korean relationship. South Korean president Moon Jae In is also considering his options in trying to effect a change in Kim Jong Un’s calculus and improve the lives of citizens in the North. The following exchange with Daily NK reporter Choi Song Min explores the options for President Moon and Kim Jong Un as we enter a new period of potential cooperation.
1. North Korea’s state media has been openly reporting that South Koreans have voted to prevent another conservative administration from taking power. What do you think Kim Jong Un thinks of his prospects with a new liberal administration, the first since Kim Jong Il was leader?
Kim Jong Un definitely has a keen interest in which party comes to power in South Korea. As he now relies on nuclear weapons development to guarantee the regime’s survival, he will be looking for more ways to ease economic pressure and begin more economic and political engagement with the South’s new leadership.
The Kim regime has been eagerly awaiting the return of a liberal government and the accompanying benefits of greater exchange, as there was practically no engagement during the Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye administrations. The North considers the past 9 years as a time of all-out political pressure from the South, so the win for the Democratic Party has come as a significant relief.
2. Even with power transfer to the liberal party, can we really conclude that Kim Jong Un will change his tune and embrace a new, friendly atmosphere on the peninsula?
Among Moon’s campaign pledges were to modify the National Security Law, restructure the National Intelligence Service (NIS), reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumgang Mountain Tourism Area, and reassess the deployment of THAAD—all measures which will be seen as favorable to the North.
The change in government therefore represents a significant opportunity for a reset of sorts in the North-South relationship. While the North feels they have been driven into a corner by an onslaught of international economic sanctions, some in the leadership are likely hopeful that the return of a liberal party in the South will also mean a return to the Sunshine Policy of previous liberal administrations.
The North likely sees engaging in dialogue to resolve inter-Korean problems, even if not entirely genuine in nature, as at least a pathway to garner sufficient political and economic concessions over the next 5 years.
3. What then do you think will be the North’s strategy towards the South going forward?
It looks as though their strategy will not change much. They have revealed as much by launching a missile just days after Moon’s inauguration and then calling for cooperation, following the same pattern as before.
Their strategy remains to continue developing their nuclear and missile capabilities, attain recognition from the international community officially as a nuclear state, and finally, from a position of equal status, conclude a peace treaty with the United States. North Korea maintains its goals of seeing the withdrawal of US troops from Korea, the cessation of joint US-South Korea military exercises, and even the eventual unification of the peninsula under communism, so they really see no alternative to their current strategy for achieving these ends.
So in reality, it actually does not matter whether the South’s government is conservative or liberal, as Kim Jong Un has no intention of halting the country’s military development anyway. Again, the North’s missile test just 4 days into the new administration was a clear message aimed at projecting the same belligerent stance as before.
To North Korea, the switch to a liberal government in the South merely represents an opportunity to receive material aid from the new administration and non-government organizations, freeing up resources towards continued nuclear and missile development. They likely also see a return to political and economic exchanges and cooperation as an opportunity to soften the hostility of the South’s citizens, facilitating eventual reunification under the North’s system.
4. The North Korean authorities regularly painted the conservative administrations of the South as ‘puppet regimes’ of the US, promulgating this idea through speeches and propaganda. What kind of inward-facing propaganda or message should we expect from the North regarding the new liberal government of Moon Jae In?
The propaganda that we typically see coming from the North is intended to strengthen internal solidarity around the singular idea of crushing the enemy. This kind of propaganda will not cease just because the liberals have come to power in the South, but it also depends on how the North interprets any new policies coming from the Moon administration. They may let up a little if they receive favorable treatment under the new policy, but otherwise, they will not hesitate in trying to force Moon into a more favorable position.
5. As you also mentioned, some are predicting that the Kim regime is waiting for a return to the Sunshine Policy. In addition, we are seeing various opinions coming out as to what degree Moon’s approach will reflect this approach. In order to better understand these expectations, can you tell us how the regime and its citizens consider the previous times under the Sunshine Policy?
North Korea actually criticized Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy from the beginning, urging its citizens to remain vigilant and hold no illusions about the true intentions of the South.
To the regime, any such admiration or envy of the South among the people represents a fundamental threat to its system of control. Citizens were told in lectures that the policy was a sneaky attempt at eroding their way of life and destroying the country’s ideology. However, at the same time, the authorities were happily accepting the South’s aid and using it to their advantage. This demonstrates their tendency for appearing to be open to change, all the while maintaining their commitment to the same goals as always.
6. What kind of policy do you really think the North’s citizens want from the South and the new Moon administration then?
The North’s citizens want economic assistance. By this I do not mean through some deal reached with the Kim regime, but rather they want some kind of change to the way they are individually able to attain an improvement in socioeconomic status.
The aid coming in during the Sunshine Policy only ever reached the elites and residents of Pyongyang. The average citizen never received any such aid. They know that food aid will probably only go to elites and the military, so instead they are hoping for fertilizer, farming tools, or other equipment that may actually end up benefiting the average person.
7. What do you think is the most important factor for Moon to consider in order to change Kim Jong Un’s calculus and improve the lives of North Korean citizens?
The North Korean citizens want a policy that aligns with their own needs. They are hoping that Moon Jae In will prioritize their livelihoods and human rights, speak out against the government’s violations, and cooperate with the necessary parties to facilitate tangible improvements to their daily lives.
Kim Jong Un must be made to realize that nuclear and missile development does nothing but harm his country and destabilize the region, and the international community must continue to press the North on this fact.