During a meeting between a high-level North Korean delegation for the PyeongChang Olympics and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the presidential office in Seoul on February 10, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong identified herself as a special envoy to South Korea and delivered her brother’s letter to the South Korean president. She also extended to Moon an invitation from her brother to visit Pyongyang in the near future. While the invitation is heightening expectations for another inter-Korean summit, attention also turns to North Korea’s real intentions behind its summit proposal. Here is Hong Hyun-ik at the Sejong Institute.
North Korea hopes that Seoul and Pyongyang should end their confrontation and hold a summit promptly. The North is under strong international sanctions as a result of its nuclear and missile development. To escape from international isolation and harsh sanctions, North Korea seems to be attempting to make a soft-landing on the international diplomatic stage through inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang’s proposal clearly shows that it is willing to mend ties with Seoul. But it doesn’t seem to be easy to normalize bilateral relations quickly as the North wants. In a bid to change extreme confrontation between the two Koreas to friendly ties, North Korea made a surprise proposal for a bilateral summit.
A lot of attention was being paid to Kim Yo-jong. Very little is known of her, except that she is the North Korean leader’s younger sister. But while staying in South Korea for 56 hours last week, she is believed to have demonstrated her presence as an influential figure in the North Korean regime.
With the Kim family ruling North Korea over three generations, leader Kim Jong-un sent his closest aide and sister to South Korea to show his sincerity toward normalizing relations with the South. U.S. President Donald Trump cherishes his daughter Ivanka, who actively engages in politics. The U.S. media say Kim Yo-jong plays the role of Ivanka in North Korea and her position in her nation is equivalent to White House spokesperson or chief of staff. Apparently, the North Korean leader wanted to dispatch a highly important political figure to South Korea to prove his sincerity and credibility in a short period of time. That’s why he sent his younger sister.
Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang is, in effect, a proposal to hold a third inter-Korean summit. In response, Moon said that he would like to make it happen by creating necessary conditions. While welcoming Pyongyang’s offer, Moon still stressed that there are impending tasks to contend with first. What would be the pre-conditions for an inter-Korean summit?
North Korea says that the nuclear issue is not a discussion topic at inter-Korean talks. The U.S., for its part, is highly skeptical about an improvement in inter-Korean ties at a time when North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which might reach the U.S. The most important pre-conditions for an inter-Korean summit would be progress in the nuclear issue and in North Korea-U.S. dialogue, if possible. Also, the South Korea-U.S. alliance should not be damaged because of rapid progress in South-North relations. The South Korean president is in a position that he would not hold a summit just for the sake of it. Regarding public sentiment within South Korea, many citizens here are doubtful of the current inter-Korean ties, which have progressed surprisingly quickly recently. Until last year, North Korea resorted to its typical strategy of attempting to hold direct talks with the U.S., while sidelining South Korea. But early this year, it abruptly began to make an unexpected conciliatory gesture to the South. So inside South Korea, it is necessary to create a mood for welcoming another inter-Korean summit. These are the stumbling blocks standing in the way of a South-North summit.
Diplomatic experts say that a third inter-Korean summit may or may not take place, depending largely on Washington’s position. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence showed a hardline stance toward North Korea during his South Korea visit for the PyeongChang Olympics. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said that the U.S. will continue with and intensify its maximum pressure campaign. But he also said that if North Korea wants to talk, the U.S. will talk.
Relations between South and North Korea have progressed quickly as of late, with North Korea sending a delegation to the Olympics in the South. In this situation, there is criticism even within the U.S. that it avoided contact with the North during the Olympics. That’s probably why Pence signaled the possibility of talks between the U.S. and the North, while he said Washington’s maximum pressure campaign is ongoing. Pence took an especially hawkish stance against North Korea during his visit to South Korea to emphasize his image as a conservative politician. Apparently being aware of negative opinions even within the U.S., he hinted that room for dialogue is left open. But it’s too early to say that the U.S. will actively seek dialogue with the North in a shift from its previous position.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul said in a regular briefing on Monday that it will start follow-up measures to create conditions for an inter-Korean summit. To begin with, the government is expected to take measures that are unrelated to sanctions, in order to maintain the hard-earned dialogue momentum on the occasion of the Olympics.
At inter-Korean high-level talks in January, the two sides discussed reunions of separated families and working-level military talks. Of course, it is necessary for the government to induce North Korea to make concessions in the nuclear issue. But it may start by touching on pending inter-Korean issues, such as the resumption of the reunion program, South Korea’s humanitarian aid for the North and cultural exchanges. The Unification Ministry will likely make efforts to keep the rare inter-Korean dialogue momentum alive, although it may be hard to expect North Korea-U.S. talks anytime soon.
To make an inter-Korean summit happen, it is crucial to create an atmosphere for dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. Is it possible to persuade both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump at the same time? The South Korean government is strongly urged to play a more active role in mediating between the two sides.
In the best-case scenario, the Seoul government might persuade Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile programs. If that is not possible, South Korea may induce the North to halt its nuclear and missile tests, at least during dialogue with the U.S. Washington is demanding that North Korea take action for denuclearization first. But South Korea may tell the U.S. that it will be helpful for the solution to the nuclear issue if the U.S. employs both dialogue and pressure, while still holding the South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises and faithfully implementing U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North. If South Korea manages to persuade both the U.S. and the North to take a half step backward, they may hold dialogue and the two Koreas can also move toward normalizing their ties. If things proceed well, South and North Korea might resume the operation of the closed Kaeseong Industrial Park and restart the Mt. Geumgang tour program as well. Plus, an inter-Korean summit could take place this year. For South Korea, it is encouraging to see what is happening on the Korean Peninsula right now. But it also has a challenging task of fully displaying its diplomatic abilities to persuade North Korea and the U.S.
Expectations are running high for the possibility of a South-North summit. It is urgent for Seoul to come up with an effective strategy to make that possibility a reality in the face of various diplomatic factors.
[Interview] Defector Works as Career Counselor to Help Fellow Expats
North Korean defector Lee Ha-neul is an employment counselor. She is recognized by jobseekers as well as her colleagues as a wonderful counselor. But in North Korea, she didn’t even know what a career counselor was.
Unlike in South Korea, there is no profession like that in North Korea, where individuals are assigned to certain positions by the state, rather than doing what they want to do. That’s why many North Korean newcomers here have a hard time choosing jobs themselves. They want someone to decide on their jobs.
Lee chose this particular profession because of her own experience in the early stages of resettlement in South Korea. She didn’t know what to do and even felt scared after learning that she had to choose her job, which wouldn’t be decided by someone else. North Korean defectors who go through training at the rehabilitation center of Hanawon usually have a similar experience. Lee found herself hoping to have a job to help people out.
At Hanawon, North Korean trainees were told to think about what they would do after completing the training course and to write a job application form. But I didn’t know what to write. I was doubtful whether I could do something and whether this society would recognize my abilities. Young newcomers expressed their hopes, like becoming a lawyer or a writer. At the time, I was 41 years old. Given my age, I didn’t dare to say I wanted to do something. So I just wrote that I didn’t know what to write because I didn’t really know what I could do in South Korea. In a group counseling program, I was encouraged to search for my dream. Still, I had no idea. After finishing training at Hanawon, I thought I could possibly help out people, who had a hard time finding jobs, just like me. I was so frustrated, and I knew exactly how the newcomers felt.
So Lee decided to become an employment counselor. At that time, she didn’t know that the profession was popular with housewives in South Korea. After failing to pass interviews many times, she eventually got hired as an intern. But a more challenging part awaited her. She faced a new task of correcting her North Korean accent and learning unfamiliar and complex information about employment.
For me, it was very difficult to say “Thank you. This is the Company Support Department at Goyang Employment Center.” Frustrated, I cried in the restroom. I wondered if it was right for me to work here. I thought I was causing my co-workers trouble and I even considered quitting my job. When I returned home, I would practice speaking in standard South Korean, holding a pen in my month and imitating announcers on TV. I recorded my conversation over the phone at work and listened to it at home to correct my accent. I also reviewed my past day and memorized basic information, including unemployment benefits. About a month later, I was able to understand what people were talking about on the phone. While answering the questions, I found that my accent improved a little bit.
Lee became accustomed to an unfamiliar environment little by little, and she did her job more confidently and actively. She has helped many people find jobs successfully, and now, she even thinks a vocational counselor is her calling in her life.
It’s important to figure out what a jobseeker really wants. Some may want more money, while others value the quality of life. Many men want to be hired as production workers. If I didn’t know much about blue-collar jobs, I wouldn’t be able to help them properly. But I worked part-time in so many places and my experiences are helpful for male jobseekers. For example, I explain to them, “For this job, you have to work standing up but you don’t have to carry heavy things.” The jobseekers also tell me what they want, like, “I don’t care about working in dusty places as long as I get paid well.” In addition to basic working conditions, like wages and working hours, I take their preferences into consideration before recommending jobs. I think this improves the chances of successful employment.
At present, Lee works as a career counselor for North Korean expats at the Korea Hana Foundation. When arriving in South Korea at first, many newcomers are at a loss what to do. Lee knows the situation all too well, so she actively helps them find out what they really need. She talks about some job hunters she still remembers.
It had been over two years since a defector came from North Korea. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she could do and how she might start. I advised her to obtain some certificates. She followed my instruction faithfully and got a computer-related certificate. I visited a company, which happened to be hiring an accountant. I met the director of the company and introduced the defector. But the director was reluctant to hire her at first, since she was from North Korea. I told him that I myself came from North Korea and North Koreans were not any different from South Koreans. I also told him that defectors were all the more eager to work hard. He eventually hired her. Another expat got married in South Korea. When her child was older, she wanted to get a job. But it was difficult for a North Korean defector on a career break to land a job. But she managed to find a job at a local post office. She was very happy. I was also glad to see her feel happy and thankful. I feel a sense of pride for helping out people.
It’s been a year since Lee started working at the Korea Hana Foundation. Thanks to her help, more than 70 North Korean defectors have since found jobs. Until taking firm root as a career counselor, Lee always carried a particular phrase in her heart. It was this phrase that gave courage to her when she felt like giving up at difficult times.
When I headed to a house given by the state, I saw a phrase on an electronic display board at the entrance of Paju. The phrase said, “The footprints left by a person will be a road for people behind him.” It came home to my heart. I thought, if I take each step properly, people behind me will follow the way more easily and the steps will later comprise a big road. I felt responsible for my life, thinking that I should leave right and appropriate footsteps. I hope to assist my fellow North Korean expats in finding jobs that would help realize their dreams, not simply earning money for their livelihood.
Here’s hoping that many more newcomers from North Korea will find stable jobs and fulfill their dreams through this career counselor.