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North’s silence on inter-Korean matters puts Seoul on edge

While allies paid keen attention to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s warning about a “new strategic weapon,” officials in Seoul had one more concern -- the absence of South Korea from Kim’s lengthy remarks on the communist state’s policy direction. 

On Wednesday, instead of delivering his traditional New Year’s address, the North Korean leader announced the results of a four-day plenary session of ruling party officials. In his 18,000-word address, reported by the North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency, he spoke of lifting a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and of the debut of a new strategic weapon. There was, however, no mention whatsoever of inter-Korean relations. The only time the words “South Korea” came up was when Kim condemned the US for bringing “cutting-edge weapons into South Korea.” 

This was in contrast to last year, when Kim mentioned inter-Korean relations at least 10 times during his televised New Year’s address. 

“We need to see whether the North will additionally mention inter-Korean relations,” a Unification Ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “There was no mention of South Korea during the meeting. We need to keep a close eye on the North’s actions against the South.”

Citizens in Seoul watches report on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un`s remark. (Yonhap)
Citizens in Seoul watches report on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un`s remark. (Yonhap)

The situation adds to Seoul’s growing conundrum -- finding a role in the stalled process toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, while the United States and the North are deadlocked in nuclear talks. 

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, in his New Year’s address on Thursday, stressed that the two Koreas need to recover trust and secure space first, in order to prepare for co-prosperity, with denuclearization negotiations and a lasting peace.

Amid heightened fears of a potential North Korean military provocation, US spy planes again flew around the peninsula Wednesday, according to aviation tracker Aircraft Spots. 

Seoul said it will continue to carry out military drills in an adjusted manner to support denuclearization efforts on the peninsula.

“We’ve maintained our position that US-South Korea joint military exercises shall be adjusted in close coordination between the two sides in order to support diplomatic efforts for denuclearization,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told a regular briefing Thursday.

The comment came after former US national security adviser John Bolton, historically hawkish on North Korea, urged the US to resume full-scale military exercises with South Korea and hold hearings to determine US troops’ readiness -- that is, the ability of the troops to fight a war in the region.

“How to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threatening New Year’s remarks? The U.S. should fully resume all canceled or down-sized military exercises in South Korea,” Bolton wrote on Twitter. “Hold Congressional hearings on whether US troops are truly ready to ‘fight tonight,’” he added, referring to the motto of US Forces Korea.

Bolton was fired from his post in September after disagreements with President Donald Trump over foreign policy, particularly how to deal with North Korea. Bolton has condemned Trump’s 2018 decision to scale down the joint military drills. 

In response, Trump downplayed renewed nuclear threats, saying he still has “a very good relationship” with Kim. Trump said he believes the North Korean leader will keep his word on their denuclearization agreement. 

But North Korea watchers have warned of possible political ramifications for Trump, who is politically vulnerable due to his recent impeachment and his campaign for reelection in November, adding that Pyongyang is already considering that in its calculation. 

“Trump and his administration have sold the talks as an important foreign policy win, but Kim’s new policy could spell a return to the tense days of 2017 when the two leaders traded insults and threats of nuclear war,” reported CNN. 

“It’s true that North Korea has been reluctant and half-hearted to negotiate, during the presidential transition period in the US, even since the Kim Jong-il era,” a source familiar with North Korea said. 

After Kim made his comments, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern that North Korea had indicated the end of a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. 

“The Secretary-General very much hopes that the tests will not resume, in line with relevant Security Council resolutions. Non-proliferation remains a fundamental pillar of global nuclear security and must be preserved,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. 

“Diplomatic engagement is the only pathway to sustainable peace,” he added. 

Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the national mausoleum where his late grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il are buried, as his first reported public activity of 2020. 

He was accompanied by key aides, including Choe Ryong-hae, the country’s No. 2, and Premier Kim Jae-ryong, according to the KCNA. Kim has paid tribute there every New Year’s Day since taking the helm in late 2011, with the exception of 2018.

By Ahn Sung-mi (