It’s an earth-shattering moment. The fact that Pyongyang
would send three of its highest-ranking officials through Incheon International
Airport [in South Korea] to attend the closing ceremony for the Asian Games is
surely one of the strongest signs of desperation yet in its six-decade history.
Amidst rumors surrounding the mysterious absence of leader
Kim Jong Un from public sight, what does the abrupt visit from the
three-member delegation signal? Why did the top three officials all have to
make this trip together? How much sincerity from the leader do they come with?
It can’t be unrelated to Kim Jong Un. That would almost be like seeking
asylum. And they probably didn’t come to leave empty-handed.
Would they have come with a major negotiating card? What
would it be? Do they have a hidden agenda? The chain of questions continues on
as such. There are three hypotheses that can be presented on the nature of this
First, it was a trip to secure autonomy in the North. Think
of a situation in which Kim Jong Un is unable to govern the country. The three
say they will prepare for post-Kim governance, and meanwhile, ask the South to
act as a buffer for them. If Seoul protects the current senior leadership, they
argue they will get the country back on track and make a transition to being a
Second, it could be a handover to the South. Say North Korea
has completely lost the means to propel itself forward. It can no longer
sustain itself under the current political system, and they ask for Seoul to
actively engage in the North. So, in effect, it would mean unification. They
came to propel talks on the specific method and direction of unification.
Third, the North wants to position itself as a neutral
autonomous republic. China and Russia are always watching for the right moment
to encroach on North Korea. Pyongyang knows immediate unification is difficult,
but it cannot hold up its existing system. So, they have extended a hand,
asking Seoul to help make the North the “Switzerland” of Northeast Asia.
These three hypotheses are all simply potential scenarios
that could have played out. But they all carry one common element: Pyongyang
does not want to be dependent on China or Russia. Without help from the South,
it knows it cannot receive any significant support from the U.S. This also
means Pyongyang is currently incapable of maintaining ties with other countries
on its own.
The problem is how ready is the South for any of these needs
from the North? The most likely possibility is that Pyongyang wants some kind
of amalgamation of the first and third hypothesis. In the long run, North Korea
will not be able to survive, if it does not transition to socialism and adopt
capitalism from there. They are well aware of this.
However, North Korea lacks the capability to make that
transition on its own and is in desperate need of a partner it can trust that
will throw itself behind the task. Who would that partner be? It seems a
natural conclusion that rather than the so-called “blood brother” China, the
South would be the proper fit.
But will one meeting suffice for building trust and mutually
confirm commitment among the two sides? The North is likely to unfold a
well-calculated indirect strategy to achieve its goal. It won’t whip out what
it really wants from beginning. Instead, it will try to gauge the South’s
competence and underlying intentions through a number of methods, and then make
If it determines the South cannot be trusted for this
“trade,” what will the next step be? Does it have other intentions? Could it be
that the three made this visit together as a safety measure to ensure they make
the right decision? This offers proof to how substantial the issue at hand is.
If they determine those currently in power cannot be
protected, Pyongyang will turn on Seoul and bolster its aggression to a level
that could even cause war in some parts of the peninsula. They are more than
aware that violence is the only exit and outlet for despair in a country
It makes sense that Seoul would try to accommodate
Pyongyang’s needs as much as it can. It’s hard to believe it would be daft
enough to rattle on about the North’s past wrongdoings to these three men and
make a blunder in this strategic game of chess. But, once the atmosphere turns
sour, the North will believe it is a no-go.
What if though they came for none of the three reasons, and
there’s a fourth: surveillance? [During the Korean War] American general
Douglas MacArthur went the extra mile to convince Pyongyang that Wonsan [on the
east side of the Korean Peninsula] would be the grounds of invasion instead of
Incheon [where it successfully conducted its landing]. The Battle of Incheon
was a success thanks to the sacrifice of high-ranking officers from the South
If, in its final plot to launch war against the South,
Pyongyang had sent the three in order to assess Seoul’s North Korea strategy,
what would the visit be about? Would it be right to guess the envoys carried a
meaningless message of lies to deceive and throw the country into confusion,
while it waits for the final commitment to wage war against the South?
All these hypotheses related to national security should be
carefully considered. We must be vigilant against groundless sentiments of hope
and also gratuitous thoughts of pessimism. A hard look at reality is what we
need. By that, I mean we need to treat anything that has even a one percent
possibility of occurring as if it is happening already.
When policymakers face reality, premature and biased
decisions are filtered out. This is the time to abandon all ideological
preconceptions. What the North truly has in mind will surface soon enough.
* Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily
reflect those of Daily NK.