On an on-the-spot visit to Mount Kumgang on Oct. 23, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly ordered South Korean facilities on the mountain to be demolished.
This represents a drastic shift in Kim Jong Un’s attitude compared to the views he expressed in his 2019 New Year’s Address. During that address, the North Korean leader hinted at the reopening of tourism on Mount Kumgang. His recent remarks, however, seem to criticize his predecessor Kim Jong Il’s development of relations with South Korea, and emphasize North Korea’s “escape” from dependence on South Korea. Some observers worry that Kim’s new attitude indicates a rejection of inter-Korean economic cooperation.
How, then, do North Koreans view this unexpected behavior? Daily NK spoke with a North Korean party official who works near the Sino-North Korean border on Oct. 24 to find out more.
Daily NK (DNK): What did you think when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the removal of all South Korean facilities in the Mount Kumgang tourism zone?
“My first thought was that he went too far. I’m sure he probably planned to make such a statement before going to Mount Kumgang. But it’s hard to fathom why he handed down the order to take down the facilities the South built when our country is in trouble. Many of our people are unable to eat properly. Does he really think our country is doing well enough to refuse help and instead tear down and rebuild everything?
DNK: Overall, though, he gave off an impression of confidence.
“I think he’s just angry. It also occurred to me that he doesn’t really understand the situation. It’s possible he doesn’t really think about the North Koreans who have to carry out the orders he gives. And if we’re talking about Mount Kumgang, that’s deep in the mountains. I have no idea what he’s thinking, really, because he is just proclaiming loudly that we will build even better facilities in a place that’s really hard to get to.”
DNK: Could North Korea really pull off developing the area without help?
“It’s possible, but likely the remarks were motivated by his desire to put pressure on the South. Even if we were to demolish all of the facilities built by South Korea and build new ones, we could never get anything close to what we have now within the next five years. Kim probably knows this, so how can he be so confident?”
DNK: Some suggest that Kim’s confidence comes from his faith that China will help out.
“Would China actually invest, however? China has the US to think about, so I don’t think it would be easy. Ultimately it seems like he’s trying to pressure South Korea to restart tourism, while at the same time he’s telling the US not to interfere in attempts to reopen Mount Kumgang for tourism.”
DNK: Kim Jong Un’s remarks about an agreement with the South Koreans regarding the demolishing of the facilities stands out.
“Maybe because Hyundai [a South Korean conglomerate] built the facilities, so perhaps he had to say something like that, as a formality. Nobody knows whether he will actually attempt to strike an agreement with South Korea.”
DNK: Looking ahead, how do you see the relationship with South Korea unfolding?
“There’s a saying among [North Korean] party officials: South Korea is a puppet that cannot do anything without America’s permission. So, whenever we need to use South Korea, we can call them up whenever and they’ll come running. It’s actually pretty obvious how relations with South Korea will develop. To North Korea, South Korea is there to be used depending on the situation.”
DNK: How have North Koreans reacted to Kim’s Mount Kumgang order?
“North Koreans have enough to be worried about, even without this. But since this was a direct order from Kim Jong Un, the tearing down and rebuilding of the site would probably be a massive undertaking. People are already facing difficult times because of all the things they have to give to the government [labor and money], but if they add a Mount Kumgang development project on top of that, well, that would be the worst case scenario. On the other hand, among the North Koreans who view this as merely a tactical move to put pressure on South Korea, there those who are much less concerned.”
*Translated by Violet Kim
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