By Nicholas Hamisevicz
In a surprising move, North and South Korea held a high level meeting shortly before the closing of the Asian Games. While Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts are still unknown, the perceived number two official in North Korea, a closely connected leader with Kim Jong-un, and the person in charge of North Korean relations with South Korea, all made their way to Incheon. The two sides agreed to meet again in a few weeks, and the slight changes in tone and tactics on both sides might be enough to bring about the sustained interaction necessary for better inter-Korean relations.
Reportedly, the word came on Friday, October 3 to South Korea that North Korea wanted to send Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Yang-gon to the closing ceremonies of the Incheon Asian Games on Saturday, October 4. The South Korean government accepted the request for the delegation to attend and was able to arrange high-level meetings with them throughout Saturday before the closing ceremonies.
The three main members of the North Korean delegation have major responsibilities in the North Korean leadership structure. Hwang Pyong-so has quickly moved up the ranks in North Korea and is thought to be in the number two position as he now holds the rank of Vice Marshal in the North Korean army, is director of the General Political Bureau for the North Korean military, and is a Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Choe Ryong-hae, who was recently removed from his position as a Vice Chairman on the National Defense Commission, still is a Secretary in the Workers’ Party of Korea and is Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission. Kim Yang-gon is a Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and is in charge of the inter-Korean relations for North Korea as head of the United Front Department. All three have important roles and connections with Kim Jong-un, making the trip a significant symbol and opportunity for better inter-Korean relations.
While North Korea probably would have sent someone to the closing ceremonies of the Incheon Asian Games, the rarity of this high-level of North Korean leaders visiting South Korea raises questions about why they were sent at this time. Inter-Korean relations were tense and struggling up until Saturday. Multiple motivations likely impacted the decision to send Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon. In the last few months, North Korea had been calling for South Korea to remove the May 24th sanctions, stop South Korean citizens from sending balloons with anti-Kim regime information into North Korea, and cease military exercises with the United States. The closing ceremony of the Incheon Games provided the regime with a unique opportunity to send high level officials in the regime to discuss these and other issues with South Korea under the pretext of the closing ceremony. This allowed both sides to reduce the pressure for any breakthroughs and provided a face saving cover for both sides to meet.
South Korea had its own conditions for talks; however, a slight change in the positioning of South Korea could have also provided an impetus for North Korea to reach out to its neighbor. Recently, South Korea’s Minister of Unification, Ryoo Kihl-jae, said that South Korea could talk about all issues, including the lifting of the May 24th sanctions, at the negotiation table with North Korea. Previously, the Park Geun-hye administration said those measures were not up for discussion. Removing or reducing the May 24th sanctions would help bring in more possible investment and aid into North Korea from South Korea. Moreover, with South Korea suggesting all issues are on the table, North Korea could push for reviving tours to Mount Kumgang at the next meeting. In addition to bringing in significant amounts of hard currency, the Mount Kumgang project also fits into the regime’s efforts to enhance North Korea as a tourist destination.
The China factor looms large in North Korea’s economy and North Korea has a strong interest in finding ways to reduce the economic influence of China. However, North Korea can reach out to South Korea, (or Japan, the U.S., or Russia), to offset China and doesn’t necessarily need a big event like the Incheon Asian Games as a catalyst for inter-Korean talks. With the Asian Games in Incheon and North Korea having some decent success at the Games, it created a potential opening to discuss investment opportunities with South Korea.
Lastly, there is likely some impulse for North Korea to alleviate some of the concerns and focus on Kim Jong-un’s health. The speculation over Kim Jong-un’s absence and unhealthy lifestyle quickly leads to questions about the stability of the overall regime in North Korea. The North Korean leadership’s fear of an attack and an attempt at regime change causes it to find ways, like developing nuclear weapons, to emphasize that it will not be threatened and deterred. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo stated that he asked North Korea’s Kim Yang-gon about Kim Jong-un’s health, and Kim Yang-gon responded that there was “no problem” with Kim Jong-un. There is some analysis that the delegation was too high level to be organized if there was trouble behind the scenes with Kim Jong-un. However, others felt the delegation was a sign that Kim Jong-un is being pushed to the side. A big piece of evidence that could end the speculation or fuel it further will be if Kim Jong-un attends ceremonies for the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10. Whatever the situation with Kim Jong-un is, trying to dissuade thinking about internal instability inside North Korea could possibly be another smaller motivation for meeting with South Korea at the Incheon Asian Games.
The surprise visit and agreement for a future inter-Korean meeting could quickly raise expectations for possible U.S.-North Korea talks. The Obama administration has consistently told the North Koreans that improving inter-Korean relations would improve the chances for better U.S.-North Korea relations. If things progress between the two Koreas, North Korea could try to put more pressure on the U.S. for bilateral talks. Last week, North Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations So Se-pyong said North Korea is ready to restart the six party talks on North Korean nuclear weapons and that denuclearization was “the party’s policy.” These statements seemed to suggest there could be room for North Korea and the U.S. to agree to talks on denuclearization. However, the Obama administration has felt it has been burned by North Korea backing away from deals before with the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day agreement after North Korea tested a missile that they claimed was a rocket for launching into space and reversing an earlier understanding to have Ambassador Robert King, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, visit North Korea to bring back detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae. Moreover, recent analysis of satellite images suggesting North Korea has improved its facilities where it could launch long-range ballistic missiles also reduces the flexibility of the Obama administration to talk with North Korea. It looks like the U.S. and North Korea will still need more time and work in order to develop an arrangement for talks about the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
With the possibility of U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks uncertain, North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to meet again in late October or early November. The excitement needs to be tempered as the two sides have often previously failed to capitalize on initial understandings for inter-Korean dialogue and successfully move forward in reducing tensions. As mentioned, North Korea will likely be looking for the removal of the May 24th sanctions and reopening inter-Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang. For South Korea, the Park Geun-hye administration seems to be initially pushing for a reunion of the separated families. Thus, it seems the two Koreas will still have some negotiation to do on the parameters of this next meeting. However, part of the interest this time is the high-level nature of the North Korean delegation in Incheon. Presumably, these individuals have the positions and the statures to help make decisions in North Korea. It would be interesting to see if these three remain heavily involved in these inter-Korean talks, and if that involvement would help improve the possibility for better North Korean cooperation during these inter-Korean dialogues. This noteworthy delegation from North Korea to the Incheon Asian Games could serve as a catalyst for future inter-Korean talks; however, sustaining that commitment and cordial atmosphere seen on October 4 in Incheon has always been a factor in keeping inter-Korean relations at a distance.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from ninjawil’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.