There has been much talk of late about the replacement of General Kim Kyuk Shik, Commander of the 4th Corps of the Chosun People’s army and the man believed to have led both the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010.
Earlier this week, one Seoul intelligence official revealed news of some form of high level event at 4th Corps HQ in Haeju, implying the possibility of a change in personnel. General Kim was also not in his usual position at a parade in Pyongyang for regime foundation celebrations in September. Overall, the available evidence does seem to point to the possibility of his having been replaced, though the government should of course be cautious about verifying it conclusively before deciding what it all means.
True or not, it also is intriguing that intelligence sources should have chosen to reveal the replacement of General Kim to the media. Could the replacement of a died-in-the-wool hardliner like him reduce tensions and fears of another provocation along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea? Was the move taken because the North is preparing the groundwork for ameliorating relations with the South, or for purely domestic reasons? These are both sensible questions to ask.
Past precedent certainly suggests that it is highly unlikely the replacing of General Kim was, if true, wholly unrelated to the South’s policies vis-à-vis the North.
The South Korean government recently provided medical equipment and Hepatitis B vaccines to the North for the first time since the sinking of the Cheonan. There have even been cautious measures aimed at steering away from inciting the North; for instance, the military has stopped the distribution of flyers across the DMZ about North Korea’s oppressive regime. The intelligence services have also taken steps to ensure that news about North Korean defectors does not enter the media spotlight. Although Minister of Unification Ryu Woo Ik maintains that the South is standing by its principles in dealing with the North, it is hard to see the current reality that way; South Korea is a softer beast than it was earlier this year.
As for North Korea and General Kim, well if he has been replaced it will signify a modest gesture of sincerity on the North’s part regarding the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. However, the replacement of Kim alone is insufficient. Without a clear apology and policies to ensure that such incidents do not happen again, South Korean citizens have no reason to be convinced by the North’s gesture this time round.
Nevertheless, the South Korea government should be ready to take several measures to build on it and further nudge the North in the right direction. But equally, it has to be careful about making a mountain out of a molehill, because that will only lead skeptics to think that this conservative administration wants to assuage fears of a provocation and begin to win votes for next year’s election.
At the moment, no one outside the two governments can say for sure if preparatory talks for an inter-Korean summit are underway. And in any case, if North Korea were to agree to have a satisfactory and worthwhile dialogue then there would be no reason to oppose it. Currently, however, North Korea has not shown any inclination to take that particular step. People in South Korea would be wise then to worry about their government selling the whole farm in trying to convince the people that such changes are on the way.