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North Korea irked by Seoul official’s commonsensical remarks on coronavirus situation

Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, came forward Wednesday to take issue with recent remarks by South Korea’s top diplomat regarding Pyongyang’s antivirus measures. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told an international forum last week that it is hard to believe the North’s claim that it has no novel coronavirus cases, adding that the reclusive regime has been unresponsive to the South’s call for cross-border antivirus cooperation.

In a statement carried by a state-run news agency, Kim said the reckless remarks by Kang show that she is eager to further chill the frozen relations between the two Koreas.

“We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for them,” Kim said.

Her criticism of Seoul’s foreign minister came six months after she issued a harshly worded statement in June threatening to demolish an inter-Korean liaison office in anger over the flying of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by North Korean defectors in the South across the border into the North. Three days later, Pyongyang followed through with the threat.

North Korea claims to be coronavirus-free, but it has put Pyongyang on the highest level of alert against the highly contagious virus, suspending the operation of public facilities and restricting the movement of residents in the capital.

Tight border controls put in place early this year have reduced the North’s trade with neighboring China to near zero. In October, trade between the two sides stood at a mere $2 million, sharply down from $290 million a year earlier, an official at Seoul’s Unification Ministry recently said, citing Chinese customs data. Given the North’s overwhelming reliance on China for trade, the impoverished regime is assumed to be struggling with dire economic difficulties.

As Kang put it, it is an “odd situation” that Pyongyang has taken such extremely costly measures against the coronavirus, despite its claim there have so far been no confirmed cases of infection in the isolated state.

Kim’s latest statement may suggest the North was worried that its failure to respond to the South Korean foreign minister’s comments could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that its claim of being coronavirus-free is false.

It also reaffirms the North’s stance that it will not accept any outside assistance in fighting the coronavirus. A day before the statement was issued, Seoul’s Unification Minister Lee In-young said the North might respond to the South’s proposal for joint antivirus efforts after holding a rare congress of its ruling Workers’ Party in January.

Observers take note of Kim’s statement being issued in time for US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s trip to Seoul this week for talks with South Korean security and diplomatic officials. It might be seen as a message that Pyongyang wants Seoul to step up efforts to forge an external environment favorable for the recalcitrant regime during the transition of power in the US.

Pyongyang appears to be at a loss on how to deal with the incoming US administration, having so far made no official response to Joe Biden’s election as the next US president. Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has made it clear he will handle the North Korean nuclear issue by engaging in principled diplomacy based on working-level negotiations, in a departure from the top-down approach taken by his predecessor Donald Trump. Seoul officials have recently suggested that the Biden team should signal its willingness to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang through dialogue so as to prevent it from making provocations to draw US attention.

Attention is also being drawn to whether President Moon Jae-in, who has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since taking office in 2017, will go as far as to dismiss Kang over her remarks. Moon replaced his defense and unification ministers earlier this year after they came under criticism from Pyongyang over their handling of matters related to the North.

Kim’s statement in June prompted the Moon administration and ruling party lawmakers to raise the idea of legislation to ban the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is pushing to ram through a related bill during the ongoing session of the National Assembly, ignoring concerns that the measure would violate the freedom of expression guaranteed by South Korea’s Constitution.

There seems to be little possibility of Moon replacing Kang, the only Cabinet member who has stayed on since Moon assumed office. If he does so, it would make Pyongyang more emboldened and do little to carry forward his peace agenda like his previous moves to pander to the North.