The message for South Korea in North Korea’s statement for the New Year was considerably more gracious than that of last year. Kim Jong Eun stated in his address, as per the subsequent official translation, “An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south.”
Despite the fact that the “unity of the Korean people” has been a constant theme of North Korean discourse over several decades now, the reaction to Kim’s words was abnormally enthusiastic. Some experts even believe that the speech revealed Kim Jong Eun’s ardent wish to restore inter-Korean relations, and say that North Korea is sure to put more weight on dialogue with South Korea going forward. The state-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) concluded that North Korea has returned to a gentler South Korea policy.
Yet the reality is that North Korea has been going back and forth between dialogue and provocation over many years. This was even true under the left wing Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations. Lest we should forget, at the launch of the Lee Myung Bak administration in 2008, the first conservative administration for ten years, North Korea expressed great anticipation that progress in inter-Korean relations was impending.
At that time, North Korea called for the creation of “a new history of peaceful prosperity” and the promotion of legal and institutional mechanisms to prepare for unification. However, as inter-Korean relations went astray and Kim Jong Eun moved closer to the driving seat, North Korea embarked on a set of extreme provocations. Mind you, even then North and South were still discussing the possibility of a summit behind the scenes.
North Korea has chosen to limit its attacks on the new administration for one major reason; to test it. This happened in the 2003 and 2008 addresses (then known as the New Year’s Joint Editorial); indeed, it happens each time a new administration is launched down in Seoul.
Choson Shinbo, the publication of pro-North Koreans based in Japan, recently asked very publicly whether Park Geun Hye is really committed to the development of inter-Korean relations or not. This too was testing the waters. Kim Jong Eun’s New Year’s Address, delivered with much fanfare on TV and radio, was not different, only bigger.
President-elect Park declared before her election that dialogue without precondition is possible, meaning that the ball is now in North Korea’s court. There is likely to be a period of review, followed by a conversation behind closed doors. However, nothing will come of it if North Korea attaches conditions to progress before it even starts. Even if the Park administration is as open-minded as it claims to be, if North Korea has an inflexible attitude then the restoration of inter-Korean relations will surely not follow.
If things go badly, as it is even odds that they will, a third nuclear test will doubtless be on the horizon. What is self-evident, at least to Daily NK, is that North Korea plans to wander a twisty path between dialogue and provocation, demanding repeatedly that South Korea make a choice between jaw-jaw and war-war, adroitly dividing South Korean public opinion in the process.
For is it not more than likely that North Korea will continue to mobilize its military, in order to both bring order to society under Kim Jong Eun and push South Korea? More than ever, is it not probable that inter-Korean relations will remain on a rollercoaster, swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock between dialogue and provocation, from missile launch to New Year’s Address? If so, then realistically our inter-Korean goals should be revised downwards.
The most important thing to begin with is minimizing conflict within South Korea. Let us be reasonable, and establish whether North Korea is proposing to adopt a responsible and transparent attitude toward dialogue. But also, let’s hold the New Year’s Address up to the light, in order that we might see it for what it is and approach inter-Korean dialogue with open eyes.