Hoping for good news from Pyongyang

Fireworks over Pyongyang. Photo Korea Friendship Association

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address earlier this week drew international attention both because it was the first in nearly 20 years that any North Korean leader had delivered in person, and because of its conciliatory tone towards South Korea. Kim said it was time to ‘remove confrontation between the North and the South’.

The new tenor has to be welcomed, given the vile invective that North Korean state media have heaped upon Seoul, and particularly President Lee Myung-bak, during the past five years . Whether the kinder words represent any real chance, however, remains to be seen. Like the North Korean agricultural reforms reported last summer, one waits for meaningful implementation.

The wait may not be long. Just a day after Kim took the high road in his speech, North Korea’s highest organ, the National Defence Commission (NDC), reverted to form in a threatening statement that condemned the ‘Lee Myung-bak group of traitors’ and called the South Korean president a ‘rat and an idiot’.

In language clearly directed towards President-elect Park Geun-hye, who takes office on 25 February, the NDC statement said ‘inter-Korean relations now stand at a crossroads’, and that ‘south Korean authorities would be well advised to make a responsible choice’.

It is North Korea, however, that wields the choice between provocation or reconciliation. Next week the UN Security Council will return to deliberations on how to respond to the North Korean rocket launch on 12 December that violated Security Council prohibitions on all such ballistic missile-related activity.

In the days before Christmas, China blocked any Security Council action, and Beijing will surely continue to veto the tough sanctions resolution sought by the US and UK, among others. Therefore, as a fall-back, and in keeping with past practice, the Security Council is likely to issue a condemnatory statement and add more North Korean missile-related entities to a trade blacklist.

When the council took such mild steps after North Korean missile launches in 2006 and 2009, Pyongyang responded by using it as an excuse to test nuclear devices. A third nuclear test may now be in the offing.

Since last April, overhead imagery has shown preparations nearly complete for a nuclear test. Recent photos show water being pumped out of the test tunnel, which probably can be readied within two weeks. Last spring China, which could abide no trouble before to its leadership transition, weighed in strongly to advise against a test. Russia also played a diplomatic card by writing off nearly $11 billion of long-standing North Korean debt. With Beijing having unveiled its new leaders in November and Moscow’s magnanimity a matter of history, Pyongyang may feel less constrained.

What North Korea wants from the South is a resumption of the aid and investment that was pledged by North–South summits in 2000 and 2007, but stopped when Lee took office in 2008 because of the North’s failure to reciprocate by dismantling its nuclear and missile programmes. Park Geun-hye, while continuing Lee’s security policies, has promised to delink humanitarian aid from politics. Unless the North embarks on another act of provocation, she is also likely to resume people-to-people contacts.

If Park also wants to reciprocate Kim’s New Year’s gesture, she might consider an appropriate baby gift. Noting an apparent sudden weight loss by North Korean first lady Ri Sol-ju in pictures taken on New Year’s Day, South Korean press speculate that she may have given birth. 

North Korean media, however, have given no hint of birth news. We North Korean watchers will have to keep waiting for the next development, hoping there will be good news from Pyongyang in 2013.


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