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[News analysis] The background behind Kim Jong-un's "return to the spring of 3 years ago"

한겨레 입력 2021. 01. 11. 18:46

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In his remarks, Kim neither shut the door on inter-Korean relations or North Korea-US relations nor offered an olive branch. Kim said he would treat South Korea "according to how they respond to our just demands and how much effort they make to fulfill the North-South agreements." Kim also promised to "approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill."

The spokesperson of South Korea's Ministry of Unification released a statement responding to the 8th WPK Congress, expressing South Korea's "firm resolve to implement the inter-Korean agreements."

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N. Korea leader's remarks during 8th WPK Congress indicate he doesn't expect sanction relief anytime soon
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the fourth meeting of the 8th WPK Congress in Pyongyang on Jan. 8. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

During the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un promised to lead the country down the path to “self-reliance and self-sufficiency” through a “politics that prioritizes the masses and the people.” Kim’s remarks appear to suggest that he’ll treat US and UN sanctions as a given for now, without expecting them to be eased or lifted.

In his remarks, Kim neither shut the door on inter-Korean relations or North Korea-US relations nor offered an olive branch. Kim said he would treat South Korea “according to how they respond to our just demands and how much effort they make to fulfill the North-South agreements.” Kim also promised to “approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”

In addition, Kim pledged to “continue strengthening the national defense,” noting that “a strong national defense is a powerful method of guaranteeing diplomatic achievements.” This amounted to a declaration that North Korea will follow its own path and engage in “pressure diplomacy” against South Korea and the US. But Kim also made clear he won’t engage in unilateral brinkmanship.

Generally speaking, the report of the 7th WPK Central Committee that Kim delivered in the WPK Congress didn’t contain any surprises. Instead, it reaffirmed the party line of “a frontal breakthrough through self-sufficiency” that was adopted in the 5th Plenary Session of the 7th WPK Central Committee, on Dec. 28-31, 2019, following the rupture of North Korea-US talks in their summit in Hanoi, in February 2019.

Given the fluidity of the international situation and the difficulty of knowing when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, Kim seems to have eschewed a unilateral and expansive policy line in favor of a more tentative and transitional one, giving himself more options and plenty of wiggle room.

North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun reported on Jan. 9 that Kim had “emphasized the need to explore active measures for repairing and improving inter-Korean relations, which are currently at a rupture,” in his report at the WPK Congress, which ran for nine hours over three days, on Jan. 5-7.

Kim outlined three planks of Pyongyang’s fundamental approach to inter-Korean relations: seeking to resolve fundamental issues, halting hostile activity, and faithfully implementing inter-Korean declarations.

“North-South relations may return to a new starting point of peace and prosperity in the near future [. . .] as they did in the spring three years ago, depending on the South Korean authorities’ attitude,” Kim was quoted by the Rodong Sinmun as saying.

Kim’s remarks about “the spring of three years ago” are an allusion to his first summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom in April 2018. Kim was apparently calling for the two sides to resume implementing the Apr. 27 Panmunjom Declaration, in which Kim and Moon promised a gradual reduction of arms. That appears to hint at the possibility of another summit, depending on how Moon responds.

Kim said that North Korea “should orient external political activities with the main emphasis put on prevailing over and subjugating the US, the fundamental obstacle to the development of our revolution and our principal enemy.” Filtering out North Korea’s typically aggressive tone, this indicates that Pyongyang’s foreign policy will focus on improving and normalizing relations with Washington.

North Korea will “approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” Kim said, outlining his principles and criteria for US policy.

“The key to establishing [a] new DPRK-US relationship lies in the [US’] withdrawal of its hostile policy toward the DPRK,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.

“Whoever takes power in the US, its [essential character] and the real intention of its policy toward the DPRK would never change,” Kim said. This was the first time he has publicly addressed the incoming administration, though he didn’t mention President-elect Joe Biden by name.

Given the assumptions of Kim’s policy toward South Korea and the US, the question of whether those two countries carry out or call off the joint military exercises scheduled for this March is likely to have a decisive impact on Korean Peninsula affairs. That’s because those exercises serve as North Korea’s prime example of “hostile policy and behavior.”

The spokesperson of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification released a statement responding to the 8th WPK Congress, expressing South Korea’s “firm resolve to implement the inter-Korean agreements.”

“If South Korea and the US announce that they plan to suspend their military exercises, they would help Kim Jong-un win internal support for acting with more flexibility than at present. Unless those drills are called off, it will be impossible to improve inter-Korean relations,” a former high-ranking government official said on Jan. 10.

“Simply trying to improve inter-Korean relations is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. The South Korean government needs to be in close discussions with the Biden administration to make room for talks as soon as possible,” another former high-ranking official said.

“Since 2018, trilateral [summit] diplomacy between South Korea, North Korea and the US has run into a wall. The time has come to think seriously about ways to reach a strategic breakthrough through four-party talks that include China,” this official said.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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