A week has passed since South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, took office. In that time, North Korea has launched several short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and officially confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 within its borders.

There are many matters for Yoon to resolve, among which are improving inter-Korean relations and the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The newly-minted government advocates “normalizing inter-Korean relations” and emphasizes a “principled North Korea policy,” leaving open the door for dialogue but adhering to set principles while negotiating consistently for denuclearization.

What do North Koreans think about the Yoon administration’s state aims for its North Korea policy? Immediately after Yoon’s inauguration, Daily NK conducted interviews with a mid-level official in Pyongyang, a lower-ranking official in North Hamgyong Province, and an ordinary resident of Yanggang Province. While the specific identities of the interviewees cannot be revealed for security reasons, Daily NK has published their views in full to better convey how they think to a wider audience. 

On the issue of denuclearization, the Pyongyang-based cadre told Daily NK that, “Nuclear weapons are an all-purpose sword handed down from generation to generation.” Regarding Yoon’s inauguration speech in which the new South Korean president said that he would prepare a bold plan to improve North Korea’s economy when it made the shift to denuclearization, the cadre remarked, “Telling us to exchange nukes for rice is like casting us out of the ranks of strong nations and ordering us to become economically dependent forever.” 

The official in North Hamgyong Province also dismissed the possibility of Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons, saying, “Just trying to make us give up nuclear weapons is a foolish thing.” He also expressed skepticism about the new South Korean government’s North Korea policy on normalizing inter-Korean relations: “The new government, like the previous one, is unlikely to come up with a particularly effective approach.”

Meanwhile, the Yanggang Province resident expressed great dissatisfaction with the current spread of COVID-19 and food shortages in the country. He voiced great hope that the South Korean government would provide support for the North, including medicine and rice, saying, “Rather than telling us to stop nuclear development and to denuclearize, shouldn’t they be doing that after they save people’s lives?”

Daily NK has published the interviews with the three North Koreans in full below. 

DNK: A new South Korean president has been inaugurated into office. What was your first thought when you heard Yoon Suk-yeol had won the presidential election?

The mid-level official in Pyongyang (hereinafter “A”): “Among cadres, the educational and professional background of Yoon Suk-yeol was a topic of discussion. An ordinary person had become president, so we wondered if he could run the country properly.”

Yoon Suk-yeol at his inauguration on May 10, 2022 (Defense Media Agency, Official Photographer: YANG DONG WOOK)

The lower-ranking official in North Hamgyong Province (hereinafter “B”): “The first thing that came to my mind was that in South Korea, anyone could become president if they build up enough popularity among the people. I thought it was amazing that I could even become president as long as I was chosen to be placed on the ballot. Unlike here, where a person’s social status [songbun] is key, in South Korea a person can become president without anyone caring who their ancestors were, and I envy that. What’s more, I envy the people who live there all the more for being able to choose their president by themselves.”

The resident of Yanggang Province (hereinafter “C”): “I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the president was from the conservative party, which has a bad and negative relationship with our country. However, when I heard that the new president had not even been a delegate [a “national assemblyman” in South Korea], I thought that this was quite a change from previous presidents of South Korea.”

DNK: What kind of person do you think Yoon is, and how is he viewed in North Korea?

A: “I know that he had been head of the Central Prosecutors’ Office [“Prosecutor General” in South Korea] so he came from a legal and justice background. The reaction here is that this is strange and it’s hard to understand how a person who knows only the law can become a president.”

B: “I knew that he hadn’t intended to run for the presidency in the first place, but when he fell out of favor with Moon Jae-in and he was more or less run out of office, Yoon said he decided to run for office to create a just society that accords with common sense, and the people of South Korea liked that and that’s how he became the new president. But what will happen once he takes power? That remains to be seen.”

C: “I only know that he is a conservative, and conservatives have a bad relationship with us, and that he became a presidential candidate after working as an official.”

DNK: When he was a presidential candidate, Yoon said, “I will deal firmly with North Korea in principle, but I will leave the door open for dialogue.” What do you think will happen to inter-Korean relations in the future?

A: “What kind of principles does South Korea have? It doesn’t hesitate to import expensive military hardware in cooperation with the US, using [North Korea’s] strengthening of self-defense capabilities as an excuse. Just as the head of a household makes sure that the locks and keys are strong enough to keep the house safe, shouldn’t a country also have a strong national defense and military? It is alien to us that they believe what they do is not a problem, yet question our efforts to strengthen our defense capabilities. And [to say that they will] open or close the door to dialogue – this is what a hegemon says. If we want to open that door, we will open it.”

B: “Of course, I believe Yoon’s [policies] will be different compared to Moon Jae-in’s. But if we conduct nuclear tests and fire missiles, and push the Korean Peninsula to the brink, he’ll have to give us something eventually. When that happens I think there will be little difference with the previous [Moon] administration. Inter-Korean relations are likely to be on ice for some time, but at the end of the day, the new government, like the previous one, is unlikely to come up with a particularly effective approach.” 

C: “The political party affiliated with Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, Moon Jae-in at least attempts to help us and deal with everything through dialogue. Yoon’s party, however, strongly pushes hostile relations with us, so I think the North-South relationship will slip backwards even further.” 

DNK: Yet, in his inaugural address, Yoon said, “If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”

A: “If he tells us to give up our nuclear weapons, wouldn’t we become like Ukraine? Telling us to exchange nukes for rice is like casting us out of the ranks of strong nations and ordering us to become economically dependent forever. He should come up with a North-South policy that can properly implement economic cooperation without us giving up our nuclear weapons.”

Yoon Suk-yeol at his inauguration on May 10, 2022 (Defense Media Agency, Official Photographer: YANG DONG WOOK)

B: “Our country will never let go of its nukes. Nuclear weapons are our only hope, and I don’t know why he’s telling us to give it up and saying all this nonsense. In the end, it seems like Yoon hasn’t thought deeply about what he must do, as if he doesn’t know us at all. Do you think [the North Korean] state cares about the quality of life of its citizens? He’d be better served by considering what he can provide to guarantee the leader’s life.”* (See Translator’s Note below)

C: “Right now public opinion is in a terrible place because of COVID-19 and everyone is afraid. I hope [Yoon] makes nukes a second priority and sends us medicine, food, and supplies first. Rather than telling us to stop nuclear development and to denuclearize, shouldn’t they be doing that after they save people’s lives? If Yoon boldly decides to send medicine and food first, South Korea will become a benefactor to the people here in our province.

DNK: The main sticking point between the two Koreas is, after all, the nuclear issue. Do you think North Korea should stick to nuclear weapons to the end or give them up and start improving relations?

A: “Nuclear weapons are an all-purpose sword handed down from generation to generation. We can’t go down the path of ruin. That’s because the path that led us up to the peak of being a nuclear power is stained with the blood and sweat of the people. After paying such a great price, how could we go back to the past?”

B: “The party and the leader will never give up nuclear weapons. It’s an absolute fact that just trying to make us give them up is downright foolish. It would be best if [Yoon] knew that. It’s best not to say things like, ‘If you give up nuclear weapons, we will do such-and-such for the economy and the lives of the people.’” 

C: “I hope people can be allowed to live as they choose even if they give up nuclear weapons. Even though we made all these nuclear weapons, we are continuously pouring money into national defense. Couldn’t we solve the problem of people not eating enough if just 1% of defense spending was returned to the economy, instead of spending it on an arms race with foreign countries?’

DNK: Do you think Yoon can build trust with Kim Jong Un like Moon Jae-in did?

A: “The foundation of trust is faith [in the other side]. Historically, there has been no faith between that party [the People Power Party] and us. And there’s not much reason to, either. A lot of people are worried about that.”

B: “Over here we don’t think trust was built with the previous president [Moon Jae-in]. I heard that Chairman Kim treated Moon Jae-in well in order to use him, but in the end he got played by the US and that made him mad. Do you know how many people were purged after he lost in Vietnam [the Trump-Kim summit of 2018]? It is the opinion of cadres here that the South Korean president is just a dog faithful to the US, a puppet on a string who is unable to do whatever he wants.” 

C: “I don’t know. But doesn’t it seem like a good idea to build trust right now by helping to save people’s lives [in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic]? Food and medicine don’t have any ideology. People here think it’s strange that [Kim] stresses, ‘Don’t get any illusions about capitalism’ and that, ‘South Korean stuff is not welcome.’ At times like this, if the South Korean president helped us by sending a ton of relief supplies, I would hope that [Kim] would just be grateful and accept it.” 

DNK: Do you think trust between leaders itself is important?

A: “Yes, because [Yoon] is a president from a political party [that North Korea doesn’t trust]. It’s hard to have a dialogue with someone who you don’t trust and you don’t know what they’re thinking inside, even if they’re a neighbor.”

B: “I think it’s important to build trust among leaders. There’s just one reason for that and that’s to prevent, at the very least, the outbreak of a war.”

C: “Yes, [South Korean] presidents keep changing, so [South Korea] must show good faith first.” 

DNK: As a North Korean, what do you expect from the new president of South Korea?

A: “I hope that he refrains from negative remarks so that there are no stories in the papers about Koreans bad mouthing each other on the international stage. And, at the very least, I hope there’s no fratricidal conflict between us. I don’t want this situation to go to the extreme.”

B: “I heard that, in his inauguration speech, [Yoon] talked a lot about freedom, but I hope he gives us as much freedom as South Korea has. I would hope that he would ask us what we would give in return if South Korea were to generously solve our most difficult problem of electricity or to lay new railways.”

C: “Our country is probably the only one in the world where it’s hard to eat three meals a day. There’s never a day when our bellies are full, so to us, if he helps us with medicine and rice and takes what he needs, that would be okay.” 

Translator’s Note: 

*The final sentence of his remarks may be confusing to some readers. Essentially, this individual is arguing that nuclear weapons are a way for the leadership to maintain power, not something that can be given up to better the lives of the country’s citizens. As such, the individual is arguing that, if the Yoon government intends to present real compensation for North Korea’s compensation, it should offer a way for the government to stay in power, rather than providing offers to improve the lives of the country’s citizens.

The translator requested anonymity. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Ha Yoon Ah is Daily NK's editor-in-chief. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.