North Korea’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the West appears be back in play.
The North has agreed to reopen military and political hotlines with South Korea that just 14 months ago it had ordered shut down.
At the time, the North said it was responding to a barrage of propaganda balloons launched by anti-Communists along the border between the two Koreas.
The balloons mocked North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
But the real reason was that Kim wanted to send a message to his counterpart in Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The message was that time is running out, that the North’s patience is limited and that any deal between Pyongyang and its enemies in Seoul and Washington must be made soon.
To emphasize the point, Kim blew up an empty liaison office on his side of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Moon responded with conciliatory gestures.
First, South Korea outlawed the practice of sending propaganda balloons across the border into the North.
Second, Moon urged U.S. President Joe Biden to tread carefully when dealing with North Korea. In particular, he urged Biden to build on the 2018 Singapore agreement signed by Kim and then-president Donald Trump.
That agreement had been roundly condemned by many analysts for its failure to rein in the North’s nuclear ambitions. But Moon argued that in spite of this, the Singapore pact shouldn’t be rejected out of hand.
In the end, Moon’s pleas appear to have worked. The Biden administration announced it would deal with the North in practical and concrete terms. More important, Washington announced it was willing to meet North Korea “anywhere, any time, without preconditions.”
So far, such a meeting has not taken place. But nothing has been ruled out. The hotlines are open again and anything is possible.
For Moon, all of this represents a rare political win. The president’s approval rating has see-sawed in recent months, thanks in part to government scandals.
The government in Seoul has also been condemned for its botched handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the government is faulted for its failure to obtain enough vaccines to immunize most South Koreans.
But Moon’s policy of rapprochement towards the North has always been popular in South Korea. The announcement that the two Koreas are once again talking can only help the beleaguered president.
What about Kim Jong Un? What does this week’s announcement do for the North’s dictator?
It’s always hard to know what goes on in Pyongyang. But Kim’s recent announcements do give a hint.
First, the pandemic is hitting the North hard. Kim admitted this on state television when he compared the public health battle against COVID to one of the most iconic events of North Korean history, the 1950–1953 Korean War.
In that TV address, Kim also took the unusual position of laying blame for the North’s flawed response to the pandemic at the feet of his own regime.
For obvious reasons, that’s something omnipotent dictators are usually reluctant to do.
However, Kim is under the gun. Moon’s five-year presidency ends in 2022. It’s not at all clear who South Korean voters will elect to replace him.
But chances are good that Moon’s successor will not be as committed to reconciliation with the North. If North Korea hopes to negotiate anything serious before Moon goes, it doesn’t have much time.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Reach him via email: is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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