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Hopes grow for inter-Korean thaw

Experts present cautious stance, warn against excessive optimism

An inter-Korean agreement Saturday to resume high-level dialogue has created much-needed momentum for a thaw in cross-border relations, but doubts linger over the possibility of a breakthrough as Pyongyang sticks to its nuclear ambitions, analysts said Sunday.

North Korea’s top-level delegation agreed to hold the talks between late October and early November during its meeting with South Korean officials. It made a surprise visit to the South on Saturday morning to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, west of Seoul.

The 11-member delegation drew keen media attention as it included the reclusive state’s top military and political heavyweights: Hwang Pyong-so, director of the North Korean military’s General Political Bureau; Choe Ryong-hae, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party; and Kim Yang-gon, director of the party’s North Korean United Front Department.

Their unexpected visit spawned speculation that Pyongyang might have sought a turnaround in relations amid its deepening international isolation, and intended to dispel rumors about the health of its leader Kim Jong-un who has been absent from the public eye for about a month.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae (right) talks with Kim Yang-gon, director of the North Korean United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, during the closing ceremony of the Asian Games at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium on Saturday. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae (right) talks with Kim Yang-gon, director of the North Korean United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, during the closing ceremony of the Asian Games at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium on Saturday. (Yonhap)

“It seems that the North sent the three high-profile figures to Incheon as a special (political) card to forge a breakthrough in the seriously strained inter-Korean relations,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute.

“The decision to send unprecedentedly top-level officials to the South also shows that the North wanted to highlight that despite some health problems, the leader Kim had no problem at all in making the highly political decision.”

Seoul’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae said that the delegation’s visit would serve as a crucial chance to mend the frayed bilateral relations.

“We (North and South Korean officials) talked mostly about the delegation’s visit to the South as a small yet meaningful start to improve bilateral relations from easily agreeable issues,” Ryoo said in a KBS interview Sunday. “I think it is certain that a very meaningful step has been taken to mend the cross-border relationship.”

Ryoo, however, warned against excessive optimism, stressing that both sides should be consistent in their attitudes toward reconciliation and cooperation.

The delegation’s visit comes as the bilateral relationship has been deteriorating with the North hardening its verbal attacks against President Park Geun-hye, who has continued to urge the North to give up nuclear arms and improve its human rights conditions.

The envisioned high-level dialogue would be the second of its kind since the first meeting was held in February. The agenda is expected to include lifting South Korea’s bans on economic cooperation, resuming tours to Mount Geumgangsan and holding reunions of separated families ― all of which are issues the two sides have struggled to resolve for years.

Some analysts remained cautious about the future inter-Korean relations, noting that the delegation’s failure to meet President Park indicates that the North may not have been so eager to change its confrontational stance with the South. Seoul officials said that although Seoul expressed its desire to meet the North Korean delegation, the delegation refused to meet her, citing “time constraints.”

“Had the delegation really intended to seek a turnaround to break the inter-Korean impasse, it would have tried to visit President Park. There is no reason to shun talks with Park if it has the strong determination to improve the frayed relations,” said a North Korea expert, who requested anonymity.

“I think the delegation’s surprise visit rather targets the North’s domestic audience. Their attendance at the closing ceremony of the Asian Games was broadcast (in the North and around the world) and made headlines all over newspapers, and then the North was able to show off its presence.”

Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the think tank Heritage Foundation, also offered a cautious outlook for the relations between the two Koreas, pointing to the North’s history of repeatedly breaching denuclearization commitments.

“While speculation is rife for progress in inter-Korean relations, the Korean landscape is littered with the shattered hopes of countless previous attempts at getting Pyongyang to lower tensions, abide by its denuclearization pledges, and implement reform,” he said.

“During his speech at last month’s U.N. General Assembly, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong reiterated the regime’s refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal, dashing media speculation that his appearance signaled Pyongyang‘s intent to extend an olive leaf.”

Whatever the North’s true intentions may be, Seoul officials said that the ambience during the delegation’s luncheon meeting with Seoul officials was “amicable.” Both sides shared the need to improve bilateral relations, they said.

The South Korean side at the talks consisted of Kim Kwan-jin, head of the presidential National Security Office, Unification Minister Ryoo, Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik and five other senior officials.

“Fall is the season of harvest and I believe the inter-Korean relations should also reap its harvest,” said Kim Kwan-jin during his opening speech at the talks.

Kim Yang-gon said on behalf of the North Korean side, “We hope that this would serve as a good opportunity to make the inter-Korean relationship better. We have seen each other (through TV footage or other means), but met for the first time in person. We hope that we can see more and more again.”

During the talks, the delegation did not offer to the South Korean side any handwritten letter from the North Korean leader. But the delegation offered warm regards to President Park, Seoul’s Unification Minister Ryoo told KBS.

Ryoo also said that Kim Yang-gon stated that Kim Jong-un had no serious health problems. Absent from the media coverage, speculation has persisted that he might be suffering from obesity-related illnesses or other problems.

After the lunch meeting, the delegation encouraged North Korean participants at the Asian Games and met with South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who attended the closing ceremony of the Asian Games as a representative of the Seoul government.

During his talks with Chung, Hwang Pyong-so expressed his wish to improve communication between the two sides, saying, “This time, we carved out a narrow path, but let’s work together to open a greater road (for communication).”

Chung said in return that with both sides showing sincerity in their reconciliation efforts, there would be “tremendous” fruits.

Wrapping up their 12-hour stay in Incheon, the delegation flew back to the North on Saturday night.

By Song Sang-ho (