At 10 a.m. on January 9, South and North Korea held their high-level talks at the Peace House in the truce village of Panmunjom. As for North Korea’s participation in the inter-Korean meeting, analysts speculate that the North is intending to focus on economic development within the nation, while approaching the U.S. outside the nation by improving relations with South Korea. The meeting was attended by five South Korean delegates led by Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon and their five North Korean counterparts, including the head of the delegation Ri Son-gwon. The talks lasted eleven hours, with the two sides holding a number of meetings before they announced a three-point joint press statement. In the statement, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to discuss North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, to hold bilateral military talks to ease tension, and to promote inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges. Here is Hong Hyun-ik, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, to explain the significance of the recent meeting.
Amid direct confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. since Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 missile launch on November 29 last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s speech that he could send a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea. After that, Seoul and Pyongyang moved fast to agree on North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games. In other words, the mood for confrontation and military crisis on the Korean Peninsula has turned for the better in a very short period of time, with South and North Korea willing to cooperate for the successful hosting of the Olympics. Also on a positive note, the two sides are believed to provide momentum for future dialogue and to create a steppingstone to an improvement in bilateral ties and cooperation.
The talks started in a friendly atmosphere, with the two sides talking about topics such as the weather, proverbs and personal anecdotes as they looked to mend their fractured ties. In the introductory remarks, the South Korean side suggested that the North send a large-scale delegation and a cheering squad to the PyeongChang Olympics and that the two sides march together during the opening and closing ceremonies. In response, North Korea said that it would send high-ranking officials, the delegation of the National Olympic Committee, athletes, cheering and art teams, supporters, a taekwondo demonstration team and reporters. Attention turns to who will lead the high-ranking North Korean delegation.
Given the precedents, it is likely that the North Korean delegation will be led by Choe Hwi, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party and chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee. But the head of the delegation could be Choe Ryong-hae, the de factor No.2 man in North Korea. Or, Pyongyang may send Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong to draw international attention and improve the negative image of North Korea, although she is considered too young for the job. If the leader’s sister comes to South Korea, and if U.S. President Donald Trump sends his daughter Ivanka, the two women could possibly encounter each other in South Korea. If that happens, the rare meeting will attract worldwide attention.
Apart from the issue of North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, South and North Korea also agreed to have their military officials meet in order to diffuse cross-border tension. The agreement came six months after South Korean President Moon Jae-in mentioned the need for inter-Korean military talks in Berlin on July 6 last year. Accordingly, experts predict that the two Koreas will soon convene their military talks, which have been deadlocked since October 2014.
I guess North Korea agreed to hold military talks with South Korea in order to touch on issues like the deployment of U.S. strategic military assets in and around the Korean Peninsula and the South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises. These issues were brought up in the North Korean leader’s New Year’s speech. In fact, an accidental inter-Korean clash might lead to a regional war in this prolonged tension, and it is necessary to prevent an unexpected crisis from erupting. For South Korea, the prospective military talks with North Korea will focus on ways to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, the head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son-gwon reportedly expressed strong discontent at South Korea’s mention of denuclearization. Experts agree that it won’t be easy to resume inter-Korean dialogue related to this issue.
At the end of the talks, Ri told South Korean reporters that South and North Korea never talked about denuclearization, saying that his nation’s nuclear development is aimed at the U.S. and North Korea has no intention of discussing this issue with South Korea. If Seoul raises the denuclearization issue at future military talks with Pyongyang, the North will likely react strongly. This is one of the challenging tasks that South Korea should contend with.
At the start of the talks, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon proposed holding inter-Korean Red Cross talks to discuss the resumption of the reunions of separated families around the Lunar New Year’s holiday in February. Along with military talks, it was another proposal made by South Korea last July. But Tuesday’s joint press statement did not include the issue of separated families. The reunion program has been stalled since October 2015. The South Korean government says that it will continue to discuss with North Korea to make progress in this urgent humanitarian issue.
It seems North Korea has some procedural problem when preparing for the reunion program around Lunar New Year’s day, which is only a month away. Also, it is the cold winter season now, a time which North Korea may find to be inconvenient to hold the reunions. Although this issue was left out of the statement, there still is room for future discussions, as the two sides promised in the statement to hold inter-Korean meetings in respective areas. If cross-border relations improve gradually, the reunion program could take place this spring, but not as early as the Lunar New Year’s holiday next month.
Media outlets around the world showed interest in the recent inter-Korean talks, reporting the meeting almost in real-time. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said that North Korea’s decision to send a delegation is “a great step forward in the Olympic spirit.” The Chinese government said that it is glad to see the South-North talks, while the U.S. welcomed North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics and added that it would dispatch a high-level delegation to South Korea. But the U.S. also stressed the need to continue to impose strong sanctions on North Korea, separate from the result of the latest inter-Korean dialogue. Attention is being paid to how North Korea-U.S. relations may unfold in the future.
The peaceful Olympics will be ensured until the PyeongChang Games and Paralympics, and the positive development will create a favorable atmosphere for North Korea and the U.S. to engage in talks and normalize relations. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. will lower the level of its pressure and sanctions on North Korea. The U.S. is expected to continue to slap sanctions on the North in cooperation with the international community and focus on North Korea’s denuclearization. Therefore, for North Korea-U.S. relations to enter a positive phase after the Olympics, Kim Jong-un is required to change his attitude toward his nation’s nuclear weapons development. That is, the U.S. is unlikely to engage in dialogue with North Korea simply because of a thawing mood in inter-Korean ties. As far as North Korea-U.S. relations are concerned, North Korea needs to change its attitude toward denuclearization.
South and North Korea will likely hold a second round of high-level talks and other meetings as well to improve their ties. A change is anticipated in future inter-Korean relations.
The recent positive development increased the possibility of the PyeongChang Olympics being a success. Inter-Korean relations at least will not be difficult until mid-March. But it’s uncertain whether North Korea will continue to show commitment to improving relations with South Korea. Bilateral relations are in a good stead for now, but the Seoul government should make efforts to manage inter-Korean relations properly and consistently. It is important how South Korea may persuade North Korea to come to the denuclearization negotiation table with the U.S. Seoul also needs to persuade the U.S. to engage in talks with North Korea, while making diplomatic efforts to prompt China and Russia to support the dialogue process. South Korea’s diversified efforts should hopefully lead to possible talks between North Korea and the U.S. and even six-party nuclear negotiations after the PyeongChang Olympics so stability will be ensured in the region.
Both South and North Korea are entrusted with a grave mission to turn the inter-Korean dialogue on the occasion of the PyeongChang Olympics to the positive momentum to settle permanent peace on their divided peninsula.
[Interview] Defector Starts New Life as Shoe Repairer
At the food alley in Nonhyeon-dong, Incheon City, Park Young-ae is duplicating a key, as a customer requested. Behind her, various tools are found. Park is a good all-rounder, duplicating keys, carving seals and mending shoes.
I do all sorts of things, including selling shoe inserts. I’ve been working for three years. I took out a loan when I started the work, but I was able to repay the loan in just a year and a half. Now I’m preparing for my old age.
Park is a North Korean defector. In 2011, she left her home in Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province. In North Korea, she supported her family by selling things after her husband died.
Chongjin is the second largest city in North Korea. There, I earned a living by selling rice and corn noodles. It was a difficult time. In North Korea, there are no private stores. You just sit at a marketplace, sell things, and pay some fees. But sometimes, it is hard even to do that because of crackdowns.
When Park arrived in South Korea, she was in her 50s. She was worried about how she could start a new life in a totally unfamiliar environment, as she had a ton of things to learn. Most urgently, she needed a job. She worked at a company that manufactured car parts, dried seaweed and attended a private learning institute to obtain a certification as a care worker. Later, she found a job at a local cleaning company in Incheon. That was a turning point in her life, as she met her future husband there. Park worked from early in the morning and got off work in the afternoon, when her husband was busy working as a shoe repairer. While watching him working and helping him with his work, she learned how to repair shoes herself.
I learned the skill for two years. After I left work at 4 p.m., I would go to my husband’s shoe repair shop, where he worked until 10 p.m., to learn how to repair shoes. I had to go to work early the next morning. But I wasn’t tired at all, thinking that I should learn the skill as early as possible to start my own business. I was able to open my shop at last. It’s amazing.
So, she worked during the day and learned the skill at night before she finally opened her own shop. Basically, it is a shoe repair shop, but her customers vary. Some want to cut out seals, and some others want to duplicate their keys. She has never closed her shop once over the last three years, as she enjoyed working and making money.
It feels terrific to earn money every day and save it little by little. I think I should save all the money I earned. I’ve opened my shop all year round, every single day. Even on Sundays, I open the shop from noon. I work really hard and treat my customers well. I have many customers now. Some even refuse to take their change.
Thanks to her diligence and sincere attitude, her shop draws a stream of regular customers who recommend the shop to their friends and family. Many customers are willing to give her their warm support.
She mended my shoes well. She is always kind and diligent. She never stops working. She once copied a key for me, and she did the job very carefully. I was surprised to see a woman who is so good at these kinds of jobs, which are mostly done by men. It’s great to see this hardworking woman who resettled in an unfamiliar society thrive. I’m sure she will achieve big success, if she keeps up the good work.
Park feels happy every day. The costs of operating her store are low as she doesn’t have any staff to pay, and sales are steady too. She can also use her skills to work for as long as she wants. She is even considering expanding her business, but in the meantime, she is willing to help other North Korean defectors who want to learn how to repair shoes.
Not only North Korean expats but some South Koreans say that they are interested in learning how to repair shoes, as they are getting older. Sometimes, North Korean women call me and ask me to teach them the skill. I tell them to come and learn. I think this is an ideal job for older people, and I hope newcomers from the North will resettle well by learning the skill, just as I did. I hope to teach them and help them open their own shops.
She believes that the successful resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea would advance the unification of Korea. Park talks about her New Year’s wish.
In 2018, I hope to earn more money so I can travel a lot with my husband and children. I want to go to many great places in South Korea, including Jeju-do Island. In ten years or so, I hope to build a house somewhere in South Jeolla-do Province and lead a comfortable life there. I want to buy land and do some farm work. I talked with my husband about this plan. I’ll work hard to earn money for about ten years from now. I believe I can then realize my dream.
Her humble dream to travel and build a new house in her old age should hopefully come true in the future.