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Inter-Korean relations at the disposal of the North’s reclusive leader

Inter-Korean relations at the disposal of the North’s reclusive leader

Posted May. 04, 2020 07:51,   

Updated May. 04, 2020 07:51


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who had been rumored to have faced poor health condition, attended an inaugural ceremony of a fertilizer plant in 20 days after disappearing. Through his dramatic reappearance on Saturday, Kim has buried diverse rumors surrounding him. Nevertheless, his whereabouts and activities over the past 20 days have not been revealed. His latest disappearance, which has spawned an intelligence-gathering competition and diverse speculations in the international community, is an abnormality that is beyond imagination in normal countries in the 21st century. This has demonstrated anew the vulnerability of the inter-Korean relations, in which the South can hold denuclearization talks and improve ties only by relying on the North’s goodwill.

The North Korean military opened fire at the South Korean military unit in the demilitarized zone on Sunday, just one day after his appearance in public. It is an act of provocation that violates the September 19 (2018) inter-Korean military agreement that bans hostile behaviors in and around the military demarcation line. Pyongyang has effectively dumped cold water at the efforts to resume inter-Korean cooperation by the South Korean government, which has started preparations to reconnect inter-Korean railways. The South Korean government judges that the incident would be an accidental firing by the North. The South Korean military’s hasty judgment on Pyongyang’s intention could make it more difficult to find the situation and truth behind it. Even if the firing was accidental, it is an apparent violation of the inter-Korean military agreement, and thus Pyongyang has to give explanations and make an apology.

The North previously failed to bring about changes to the international community’s policy toward Pyongyang despite its successive provocations of missile and multiple rocket firings, but has succeeded in drawing attention through Kim’s sudden disappearance this time. It is not the first time that the North Korean leader disappeared from official news outlets for a long term before making dramatic reappearance. It is the sixth time since his inauguration that Kim has disappeared for more than 20 days. Kim went into hiding while there’s no circumstances that he had to worry about his own safety, such as Washington’s precision strike. The North succeeded in sparking interest in the regime anew with Kim Jong Un’s vanishing, and at the same time has revealed the lack of transparency of its regime once again, which validates that the Stalinist country has deviated further from a normal country.

Controversy over Kim’s latest disappearance has demonstrated how weak the international community is in intelligence gathering on moves of the nuclear-armed Pyongyang. South Korea should check whether information sharing between Seoul and Washington was seamless enough during Kim’s disappearance. Unlike the South Korean government that constantly claimed there was no special move visible in the North amid all different speculations, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “I hope he is fine,” thus raising suspicion, as the leaderships of the two allies have repeatedly shown differences in their views. Information-sharing about the North’s regime between Seoul and Washington should not leave open even a tiny loophole in light of the reality of Seoul that faces the constant threat of North’s nuclear weapons. Chances are high that President Trump will shift into a management mode towards the North, which is meant for his administration to manage and maintain the current situation, until the upcoming presidential election in November. South Korea-U.S. cooperation in intelligence on North Korea has become all the more urgent and essential.

Young-Sik Kim spear@donga.com