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Pyongyang intensifies reconciliatory signals

Seoul remains skeptical of N.K. peace offensive

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Published : 2014-01-05 19:52
Updated : 2014-01-05 20:23

North Korean military officials hold a rally at an assembly hall in Pyongyang on Thursday. (Yonhap News)
North Korea appears to be ramping up its peace offensive after leader Kim Jong-un called for better cross-border relations and economic revival in his New Year address.

State media have been churning out articles and editorials since Wednesday, pledging efforts to enhance inter-Korean relations and achieve the nation’s late leaders’ goal of national reunification.

The overture is apparently aimed at expanding industrial cooperation with and extracting food handouts and other economic aid from the South, which are essential to shore up the impoverished North Korean economy.

But Seoul remains skeptical, demanding Pyongyang demonstrate its sincerity through action and follow through on its commitments to denuclearization.

The Rodong Sinmun, a Worker’s Party mouthpiece, ran a “resolution” on Saturday by Kang Ji-yong, a senior official at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, in which he vowed to study Kim’s New Year speech to “grasp its essence” and strive to “thoroughly embody it in the national unification movement.”

In the address, the young leader urged Seoul to move toward “independent, democratic unification” and “come forward” to improve relations with Pyongyang.

“We resolve to dedicate our passion and strength to bring forward an independent unification, peace and prosperity by fighting for the improvement of North-South relations and national unification,” Kang wrote.

The article gained traction as Kang was the North’s representative to what would have been the first ministerial inter-Korean dialogue in years in June. But Pyongyang called it off after complaining that the South’s chief delegate, Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-shik, was unfit to be Kang’s counterpart.

The piece came one day after Pyongyang Broadcasting Station stressed the need for “strong resolve” to warm up the relationship, though it looks “twisted and entangled” for now.

The radio station reiterated Kim Jong-un’s call for an end to “fratricidal confrontation” and “uproar about pro-North groups,” saying the future of cross-border ties “hinges entirely on the South’s attitude.”

Uriminzokkiri, a North Korea propaganda website, has also been publishing a slew of op-eds supporting Kim’s remarks.

Kim Hye-gyong, an official at the central committee of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, promised to contribute to independent unification, peace and prosperity.

“The nation’s unification can be realized according to the people’s interests and demands by thoroughly abiding by the position of uriminzokkiri (among our people),” she said in an article Friday.

The peace offensive follows a familiar pattern. Kim Jong-un’s first New Year’s address last year also stoked optimism by stressing the need to defuse tension and cease cross-border confrontation. But hopes soon faded away as the regime pushed ahead with a nuclear test, war threats, slander and closure of a joint factory park in Gaeseong.

Kim’s father, the late despot Kim Jong-il, floated reconciliation in 2010, only to do a compete turnaround months later with attacks on a South Korean corvette and a border island.

“We can’t help questioning (the speech’s) authenticity,” Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesperson Kim Eui-do said. “It was North Korea itself that aggravated inter-Korean relations through military provocations and threats and noncompliance of promises.”

Ruediger Frank, a head of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna, warned against overemphasizing “what may sound like North Korea holding out an olive branch,” citing previous cases.

“No North Korean New Year’s Day speech or editorial is complete without talking about unification. … All the formulations have been used before,” he wrote on the 38 North blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Yet some other experts forecast that Pyongyang may propose a new round of high-level dialogue, reunions of separated families and tours to Mount Geumgangsan, given this year’s relatively more upbeat messages.

They also noted that the North proposed working-level talks over the operation of the Gaeseong industrial complex and allowed a visit by officials from around the world despite stringent condemnation from the South over the execution last month of the leader’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek,

“Recent events have reinforced the signals that Pyongyang continues to hold open the door to engaging (President Park Geun-hye) more fully at some point,” said Bob Carlin, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University in the U.S.

“Many times over the past 30 or 40 years, the two sides have started dialogue by agreeing to stop slander of the other. It’s a relatively easy (and verifiable) first step. By raising it, Kim would appear to be signaling that he’s prepared to start off with something concrete, if modest, in order to open the door,” Carlin said on 38 North.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the independent Sejong Institute, also predicted that the North would display “more active attitude” such as by suggesting the resumption of family reunions and tour programs in the first half of the year.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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