Approaching the Ri Son Kwon noodle controversy from the perspective of national reconciliation

Editor’s Note: Thae Yong Ho was serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he chose to defect with his family to South Korea in 2016. Following the recent release of his book, “Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat,” and his departure from the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), he has committed himself to improving the outlook for those still living in the DPRK. His current efforts focus on information sharing and the power of education to effect change.

As one of the highest-ranking diplomats to ever defect, Thae has teamed up with Daily NK and its broader media consortium, Unification Media Group, for a weekly series to share his unparalleled insight into the North Korean system, ethos, and strategic thinking, while unpacking his vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Remarks by Ri Son Kwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, about South Korea’s top business executives consumption of cold noodles during an inter-Korean event in October has become a major controversy.

After one of the executives ordered more cold noodles, Ri was quoted as saying, “Are the cold noodles gliding down your throat?”

There are some who claim that a formal apology should be received as it was not an one-off rude behavior.

While others say that we should look at the background of that remark and there is no need to overreact to the North Koreans’ culture of direct jokes.

To be honest, when I first heard about the “cold noodle remarks,” I was suspicious of that incident and if it were to be true, I thought it wasn’t right to let it slip by.

Regardless of the background of that remark before and after, if Ri Son Kwon had said such a thing in front of the South Korean conglomerates it is still regarded, nonetheless, as a great insulting.

In North Korea, however, the statement like “Is the food going down your throat?” is often said by parents to their children as well as those superiors to inferiors.

Usually North Korean people do not feel to be insulted or uncomfortable from hearing these words.

Furthermore, considering the fact that Ri Son Kwon had come to eat noodles with South Korean conglomerates, I don’t think he had said it with an intention to provoke anybody.

Even until the early 2000’s, when I worked at the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the American side was referred to as “yankees/American bastards” while we used “those Chinks and those Ruskis” when referring to China and Russia in all documents given to Kim Jong Il.

This was the normal way to show loyalty to the Party as well as independence in politics.

But one day Kim Jong Il warned then First Deputy Foreign Minister, Kang Sok Ju that while these words were popular in the public, if diplomats as well would often use such vulgar expressions then they would easily make unnecessary mistakes while conducting diplomatic activities.

As a result, expressions such as “those yankees, Chinks and those Ruskis” were banned in all documents in Foreign Ministry.

As North Korean party and state officials are often told by the Party to be careful in their language in front of public, it is possible that Ri Son Kwon had said the noodle remark to lighten the mood.

In this way, I think it would be too extreme to demand a formal apology from North Korea or demand that someone else take over Ri’s role for future meetings.

If we are to demand formal apologies from North Korea we should start with the issues such as only flying the North Korean flag at the welcome ceremony at the airport when President Moon Jae In arrived in Pyongyang or the fact that the symbol of North Korean Workers’ Party was placed on top of the Korean Peninsula at the backdrop of the photograph commemorating the Pyongyang inter-Korean Summit.

Only flying the North Korean flag at the reception ceremony for President Moon and choosing a political venue that signifies the North Korean Workers’ Party unifying Korea under the banner of the Juche ideology by force as a place for a commemoration photograph is a major violation of the basic agreements reached in 1991 that relation between North and South Korea is a special one leading towards unification.

Reunification of the Korean Peninsula begins with the change of the North Koreans’ perceptions, and in order to that we must begin with enlightening them of their mistakes.

By all means Kim Jong Un is aware of the controversy surrounding Ri Son Kwon’s noodle remark.

It was probably also a shock for Ri Son Kwon himself, and I am sure he will be careful at any future inter-Korean events.

I believe that it is reasonable from the perspective of rapprochement between North and South Korea that Ri Son Kwon’s noodle controversy should end here and we should take one step further towards denuclearization and a peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.