Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju surprised observers by personally attending
the South Korean musical performance in Pyongyang on April 1. Image: KCTV
North Korea is continuing to signal an unprecedented positive shift in attitude towards South Korea this week as musical artists from the South traveled to Pyongyang for a series of events. Kim Jong Un surprised observers by personally attending the Sunday performance, and while the South’s journalists were prevented from covering the event from the audience, Director of South Korean Affairs and Head of the United Front Department Kim Yong Chol made a rare apology for the decision.
Kim’s attendance marks the first time a North Korean leader has personally viewed a performance by South Korean artists. An apology by a high-ranking North Korean official to members of the South Korean press is also an extraordinary occurrence. Both of these actions may be considered signs that the North does not wish to disrupt the progress made in this year’s inter-Korean thaw.
Another remarkable aspect of Kim’s attendance came after the concert when he personally greeted and shook hands with each of the performers. He even made a surprise suggestion that since “the South [Koreans] performed ‘Spring is Coming,’ let’s play ‘Autumn Has Arrived’ in Seoul this fall,” implying that he is in favor of organizing another North Korean performing arts delegation to the South later this year.
Many observers believe these moves are part of a strategy by the North to make larger changes to their country. The idea is that mending relations with the South will convince the international community to lift sanctions, allowing more international cooperation in order to fix their ailing economy.
It appears that South Korea is their first target for improved relations, which they intend to use as leverage towards improving relations with the United States, whom they see as the key to getting sanctions lifted. The announcement by North Korea late last year that they had ‘completed’ their nuclear program may be considered their opening move in their expected negotiations with the US.
“Sanctions represent the biggest motivating factor behind the North’s planned summits with both the South Korean and American leaders,” said Lee Su Seok, a North Korea analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy. “If the sanctions measures currently in place carry on for another one or two years, the country will continue to suffer considerably from the damage being done to the central government.”
“Through improving relations with the US and South Korea, the North is attempting to both find sanctions relief and at the same time receive guarantees over the safety and longevity of the Kim regime,” Lee continued. “They believe that now is the time to act, to follow what they see as a rational and proper strategy of offering mutually beneficial terms through talks, bolstered by their belief that the talks were made possible only after having ‘completed’ their nuclear program.”
Kim Jong Un greeted and shook hands with each of the South Korean
performers after their concert in Pyongyang on April 1. Image: KCTV
Kim Jong Un reportedly told the South Korean delegation visiting Pyongyang last month that there would “be no reason to keep nuclear weapons as long as the security of our system is guaranteed,” lending support to the theory that ‘completing’ their nuclear program was always meant to force the other side to take them seriously in negotiations.
“North Korea’s strategy is to achieve talks with the South after announcing the completion of their nuclear weapons program, and then use that as leverage in negotiations with the US,” said Cho Han Bum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). “They hope to overcome difficulties in developing their economy through sanctions relief, which they believe will come by quickly moving to negotiations.”
Both experts agree that North Korea’s fundamental strategy rests upon potentially groundbreaking improvements in inter-Korean relations, and that the North sees no limit to the developments as long as the Kim regime’s power is guaranteed by the South.
“Improving relations with South Korea is just a stepping stone for the North on their way to better relations with the US and other countries, meaning that we may see positive inter-Korean developments for some time to come,” Lee added. “Even after the Kim-Moon summit, we may see a follow-up summit, separated family reunions, or other exchanges as the North will want to keep up the positive momentum, potentially leading to major breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations.”
There are worries, however, that the two sides will reach a stalemate at some point in the process as the North faces political consequences for going too far towards opening or meeting the demands of the South in negotiations.
As both sides move towards greater cooperation, the potential for unwanted influence over the North Korean population will rise. This may represent a red line for the Kim regime, which considers the preservation of its current political system the utmost priority. While it appears that inter-Korean relations are on their way towards a radically positive change, the North’s political priorities may once again prove to be the biggest limitation.