South Korea’s newly-elected government has approved requests by civil organizations to contact North Korea as a gesture intended to initiate the warming of relations. However, the North Korean government has responded coldly, rejecting the series of overtures. Kim (reporter), can you tell us why North Korea, which has been emphasizing an improvement in relations between the two Koreas, is rejecting the South Korean government’s proposal for exchanges?
Although it’s true that the Moon government is showing a flexible attitude toward inter-Korean relations, the North basically wishes to criticize the framework of international sanctions against it. Therefore, North Korea is pressing the Moon government to choose exclusively between sanctions or dialogue. On June 5, North Korea sent a fax to the Korean Sharing Movement, a private support organization, stating that as long as the South Korean government supports international sanctions, South Korean organizations will not be permitted to visit North Korea.
If we closely examine the comments, it is evident that North Korea is trying to test and tame the new South Korean government. The regime wants to control the reins of bilateral relations with the South. An official from the Ministry of Unification has labeled this behavior by North Korea as a typical ‘taming’ attempt that has been seen each time a new government is elected in South Korea.
It seems that North Korea intends to take the upper hand in inter-Korean relations. So what form of inter-Korean exchange does the North prefer?
If you look at what the Rodong Sinmun (North Korea’s state-run publication) stated on June 6, the intention of the regime becomes clear. The Rodong Sinmun argued that just because the South Korean government permits humanitarian aid or civilian exchanges, it is not directly related to improving inter-Korean relations. It also argued that the Moon government’s attitude and position on the June 15 joint declaration and the October 4 declaration will greatly affect inter-Korean relations. Seen in this context, the North Korean regime, which curtly rejected visits by the humanitarian organizations, appears keen on staying its course.
Overall, North Korea seems intent on returning to previous inter-Korean agreements and the level of exchange and cooperation that existed before the phase of international sanctions. Most of the forms of exchange and cooperation North Korea has thus far insisted on, including the resumption of tourism at Mt. Geumgang and the lifting of the May 24 sanctions, are related to securing more funds for the regime. In other words, it can be assumed that the North Korean authorities are preferring political overtures over civilian exchanges such as humanitarian aid, which do not provide the regime with much relief from sanctions.
How is the South Korean government reacting to the situation?
An official from the Ministry of Unification has announced that the Ministry will pursue the principle of restoring inter-Korean relations regardless of North Korea’s responses. Lee Duk Haeng, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, also encouraged North Korea to accept civilian exchanges between the two Koreas. Here are his comments.
[Lee Duk Haeng, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification] Recently, North Korea has postponed a visit by a South Korean civil organization. But the South Korean government will continue its efforts in improving inter-Korean relations, including civilian exchanges and humanitarian aid. We urge North Korea to permit these visits by South Korean civil organizations, thus contributing to improving relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Then how will the June 15 joint event proceed? Can you tell us how the discussions are going between the two Koreas?
North Korea expressed its desire to hold the event in Pyongyang, and the South Korean Preparation Committee for the event responded that it will accept North Korea’s proposal on June 5 through fax. But North Korea has not reacted further, let alone issue an invitation. Normally, permission to visit North Korea must be granted by the Ministry of Unification seven days before the planned visit, and a submission of North Korea’s formal invitation and other documents that guarantee personal security are required. But these conditions have not been met. As June 15 is rapidly approaching, the joint event appears unlikely.
If North Korea sees that the joint hosting of the event is impossible, it will hold South Korea responsible, criticizing its participation in international sanctions. In regards to this, the South Korean Preparation Committee will hold a press conference tomorrow to discuss the outcome of the talks with North Korea and announce the official position of South Korea.
In view of North Korea’s responses to date, it seems that the warming of relations between the Koreas will take longer than expected. What is your opinion?
Yes for the time being, the back and forth between the Moon government and the Kim Jong Un regime is likely to continue. Above all, experts predict that normalizing inter-Korean relations will not be easy unless the North Korean nuclear issue is addressed. Let’s listen to an explanation by Cho Han Bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
[Cho Han Bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification] Actually, the North Korean nuclear issue is of utmost importance for inter-Korean relations. That is why it is difficult to restore North-South relations unless some kind of solution is found. In particular, the normalization of economic cooperation must be preceded by resolution of the nuclear issue. In this respect, the South Korean government can show flexibility in humanitarian assistance and private exchanges, but it must seek solutions for other current issues such as the resumption of Mt. Kumgang tourism and the removal of the May 24 sanctions, in conjunction with the nuclear issue.
It is inconsistent for North Korea to respond coldly to South Korea’s proposal for exchanges while blaming South Korea for the worsening of inter-Korean relations. Is this strategically advantageous to North Korea?
As the Moon Jae In government announced its intention to restore inter-Korean relations from the start, North Korea is likely to exploit the situation to create conditions favorable to it. However, it is unimaginable that the South Korean government can accept such demands while the North continuously engages in provocations and international sanctions are being strengthened in response.
In the end, North Korea’s so-called taming strategy and cold rejection of South Korea’s offer to resume inter-Korean exchanges will work against it. At present, South Korea and the US have offered many opportunities to bring North Korea back to dialogue. The two countries are also leaving open the possibility of reaching some level of compromise on the nuclear issue. For North Korea to fritter away such a good opportunity will only result in the continuation or strengthening of sanctions, which is not what it desires.