North Korea has refrained from provocations since it test-fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile on September 15. The North had carried out provocations about twice a month since the Moon Jae-in government took office in South Korea in May this year. But in a very unusual move, it has not made any provocative actions for about 50 days—the longest period in months. Here’s Professor Kim Hyun-wook of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy to explain North Korea’s true intentions behind its silence.
I think the Trump administration’s military pressure on North Korea has been effective. The U.S. military has been building up its presence in the region, as seen in the annual military exercises between South Korea and the U.S., known as the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, their maritime drills and now the deployment of three aircraft carrier fleets. Especially ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Asian tour, the U.S. is demonstrating its military power in an apparent bid to discourage North Korea from making additional provocations. Under these circumstances, any provocation from the North, such as another nuclear test or a missile test-launch, will prompt the U.S. to press ahead with its military option and therefore place a significant political burden on North Korea. I think that’s why Pyongyang is refraining from provocations for now.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on October 29 that leader Kim Jong-un inspected a cosmetics factory in Pyongyang and ordered the factory to produce quality products that would be able to compete with world-famous brands. The inspection came ten days after Kim’s tour of a shoe factory in Pyongyang. While North Korea’s provocations have stopped temporarily, its leader has visited an orchard, a shoe factory and a cosmetics plant one after the other. And the nation is actively publicizing Kim’s economy-related public events in the media both inside and outside the North. This shows a stark contrast to the nation’s previous attitude, as it didn’t report the leader’s economy-related activities at all for 93 days from June 21 to September 20. Kim’s abrupt move to take care of the economy is interpreted as the nation’s intention to brace itself for Washington’s military pressure and economic sanctions imposed by the international community.
It seems that Kim Jong-un’s series of field tours of non-military facilities were aimed at tightening state control over North Korean society, where jitters are growing in the aftermath of international sanctions. Or, the leader may have wanted to demonstrate his country’s internal solidarity to the outside world. In other words, Kim probably wanted to show that North Korea is strong enough to overcome any sanctions and still enjoys economic prosperity.
North Korea sent back a South Korean fishing boat and crew on October 27, six days after it seized the ship for violating its territorial waters. In a similar case in August 2010, a South Korean fishing boat that went adrift due to engine failure was captured by North Korea. It was repatriated after a 31-day detention. Back in 2005, when South and North Korea engaged in brisk exchanges, North Korea returned two South Korean fishing boats right away after a brief investigation. But amid strained bilateral relations due to North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations, it is rather unusual that the North released a South Korean boat relatively promptly.
North Korea is having a hard time enduring international sanctions. Of course, it will not stop its nuclear or long-range missile development because of the sanctions. But due to the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, North Korea is banned from exporting seafood, mineral resources and textile products. About 90 percent of North Korean export products are subject to the sanctions. Inevitably, North Korea is faced by economic difficulties. The nation finds it necessary to create a mood for dialogue and for the lifting of the sanctions. Pyongyang has tried hard to hold dialogue with the U.S., but there has been little progress because the two sides are poles apart over key issues. I think North Korea is now turning its eye to South Korea in the hopes that inter-Korean dialogue would serve as a steppingstone to North Korea-U.S. dialogue.
Previously, North Korea severely criticized China for joining the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for sanctions on the North. But a change in attitude has been detected as of late. On October 25, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent a congratulatory message to Chinese President Xi Jinping after he was reelected as the Communist Party leader. Prior to that, the central committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party congratulated the Communist Party of China on its 19th congress.
China has traditionally dispatched a high-ranking official to North Korea after its party congress to promote friendship with its communist ally. North Korea seems to be taking advantage of this situation. Xi Jinping’s second term has begun, and the Chinese president is expected to carry out his foreign policy more aggressively and respond firmly to the U.S.’ Asia strategy and its policy toward China. Against this backdrop, buffer zones like South Korea and North Korea are becoming increasingly important. Pyongyang believes that China will continue to focus on the strategic importance of North Korea, despite its nuclear and missile development. Having this belief in mind, Pyongyang seems to be making efforts to improve its relations with Beijing, as seen in the congratulatory messages it has sent to China recently.
During the recent party congress, China stressed that it would respect its cooperative relations with North Korea. But considering their relations have worsened in recent years, experts are saying that it will be difficult to restore bilateral ties anytime soon.
North Korea seems to be making a gesture toward China, indicating its wish to mend bilateral relations. I think North Korea’s additional provocations will determine their future relations. If North Korea continues to stick to its missile development and therefore makes the international community put the blame on China, Beijing will re-examine its relations with Pyongyang. If the North refrains from provocations, on the other hand, North Korea-China relations may improve slowly. But I think North Korea will go as far as to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. If that happens, it won’t be easy to restore North Korea-China relations soon.
Some analysts are saying that North Korea’s recent calm attitude shows its conciliatory message aimed at improving relations with South Korea and China. But Professor Kim says that it is hard to see the recent development as a positive sign that would bring a fundamental change in inter-Korean ties or in the nuclear issue.
I don’t think North Korea’s current attitude will last long. It is only a ploy to seize an opportunity to test-launch a long-range missile. I imagine the North will show the true sense of a conciliatory gesture as early as the beginning of next year after it conducts an ICBM test and declares the completion of a long-range missile to carry a nuclear warhead. When North Korea wants to hold dialogue with the U.S. as a nuclear weapons state, it may create a more conciliatory atmosphere.
Major diplomatic events, including Trump’s Asian tour and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, will be held in November and are expected to be a watershed moment for diplomacy surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Different summit meetings may present a possible solution to the North Korean nuclear issue to provide momentum to change security conditions in the region. For South Korea, it is time to come up with diverse diplomatic strategies.
The second term of Xi Jinping has started in pursuit of a strong China. But China is showing signs of improving ties with South Korea to respond to the U.S. effectively. Japan, meanwhile, is expected to continue to take a tough stance toward North Korea with a goal of revising the Constitution. Japan’s hardline stance will help strengthen three-way security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. South Korea needs to carry out its diplomatic policy based on the strong South Korea-U.S. alliance, at least to lead future inter-Korean dialogue in a way it wishes, and it should be careful not to lean toward China too much. If South Korea does not consolidate its relations with the U.S. now, it might be sidelined diplomatically when North Korea-U.S. dialogue takes place in the future. South Korea should keep its diplomatic balance, based on the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
North Korea has remained silent for a while. We’ll have to wait and see how the nation may respond to different countries’ summit diplomacy scheduled to be held from next week.
[Interview] Play Describes Suffering North Koreans near Nuclear Test Site
A play was staged in a small theater in Daehakro, downtown Seoul, from October 20 to 22. Entitled “Punggye-ri Azalea,” it was the third theatrical performance arranged by a nongovernmental organization called the Organization for One Korea, following the group’s first play “Tales of People Who Left” in 2014 and the second one “The Memory of Jagang Province” in 2016. Let’s hear from Shin Mi-nyeo, head of the group.
As a group dedicated to unification-themed plays, we planned this play as part of pro-unification movements. This year’s work “Punggye-ri Azalea” drew a lot of attention amid growing interest in North Korea’s nuclear tests and possible radiation exposure to local residents. While sharing the joys and sorrows of a North Korean family, audience members may perceive the defectors differently and wish that unification will come about quickly. With this hope in mind, we produced the play.
Punggye-ri is the name of North Korea’s nuclear test site in Kilju County, North Hamgyeong Province. There has been constant speculation that local residents in the area have been exposed to radiation. The play describes the life of a North Korean family and the bleak atmosphere in the site, where an unidentified, incurable disease known locally as “ghost disease” is spreading. Lead character Soo-hee crosses the border into China to earn money and save her son, who suffers from the ghost disease. In China, she falls victim to human trafficking. She is forced to carry drugs and somehow comes to South Korea, where she does something risky for her husband and son in the North. Unfortunately, she is arrested and her son dies in the process. It is said that director Lee Ji-hwan did a lot of research to enhance the drama’s realism.
I consulted a political science professor at Sogang University who is an expert in North Korea. The play is based on real stories of North Korean defectors in South Korea, and even those who currently live in the Punggye-ri area.
Eight performers appear in the play, and three of them are from North Korea. For that reason, they were able to empathize with the characters in the play deeply and become more absorbed in their performances. Let’s hear from actress Kim Bom-hee, who starred as Soo-hee, and actor Oh Jin-ha, who played the role of the husband, Kang-jin.
To be honest with you, it was really hard to express the defection process in the play because the scene constantly reminded me of my own grueling process of escaping from North Korea. While I defected for my own sake, the heroine did so for her family. She is an amazing character.
I arrived in Seoul by way of China, Myanmar and Laos. I heard other defectors followed an existing route through brokers. But I came all alone, only carrying a map with me. At the time, I didn’t even realize that defection without any guide or established route would be so difficult and dangerous. All I thought about was how to survive. I couldn’t stop to think about my struggles or hunger at all.
While studying theater and acting on stage, Kim was able to comfort herself and heal her mental scars from the painful experience of escaping from her home country. She plans to study “drama therapy” to help other North Korean newcomers heal their emotional wounds. Performers from South and North Korea stood on stage together, which is another special element of this play. Actor Lee Gyu-seok, who performed the role of a drug dealer, shares his opinion.
At first, I felt rather uncomfortable around the North Koreans as I was very careful not to say anything which could hurt them. But while practicing together every day and sharing our personal stories, we felt more comfortable and understood each other gradually. By the time we finished practicing, we became quite intimate. I imagine unification would be like that. At first, South and North Koreans might be unfamiliar with each other. But once they get to know each other better, they will feel like they are close friends or relatives.
What the actors felt about unification was delivered to the audiences vividly. They were able to better understand the newcomers who risked their lives to flee from their home country and have a hard time resettling in South Korea. Also, they thought about the need for unification once again.
It was touching. It’s been a long time since I last had a good cry. It seems the audiences became more interested in North Korean defectors, and I’m glad about that. I often provide training programs to North Korean newcomers. In fact, many North Korean defectors become victims of human trafficking after they escape from the North. The play reminded me of that, and I cried a lot. It’s unbelievable that such an inhumane crime is still occurring in this day and age.
The play tells the story of North Korean residents who are suffering from the aftermath of a nuclear test. We hope the nuclear issue will be resolved as early as possible.