North Korea’s Saturday Surprise at the Asian Games
October 6, 2014
On October 4, a delegation of eleven top North Korean officials, including the supposed no. 2 and no. 3 ranking leaders in the party and military, paid an unannounced visit to Incheon, South Korea to attend the closing ceremonies of the 17th Asian Games. Their visit was only announced by the South Korean government an hour before they arrived at Incheon International Airport in Kim Jong-un's private plane at 10:10 AM.
Q1: What is the significance of this visit?
A1: This is probably the “Big Two” after Kim Jong-un, so it is pretty high-level as these things go. Hwang Pyong-so is the director of the Korean People's Army Political Bureau, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (since last month, September 25, during the 2nd session of the 13th Supreme People's Assembly) and first deputy director of the powerful Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) Organization and Guidance Department. He is widely believed to be the second highest-ranking official in North Korea. Choe Ryong-hae is currently the WPK's Secretary for Workers' Organization and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission (since last month, and a position last held by the executed Jang Song-thaek) and until recently the number two but still a powerful official in Pyongyang. The third top official is Kim Yang-gon, head of the department that handles diplomatic relations with South Korea. Their inclusion made this the highest -level delegation to visit South Korea since 2009.
Q2: What is likely to come from these meetings?
A2: The delegation met with South Korean Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae, and National Security Advisor Kim Kwan-jin. President Park reportedly offered to meet with the visitors but the North Koreans declined due to “time constraints” in their schedule. The two sides reached an agreement to set up a 2nd high-level inter-Korean meeting sometime between the end of October and early November.
The most likely result of these talks will be an agreement on another set of family reunions, and possibly agreements on bringing the two inter-Korean projects – Kaesong industrial complex and the shuttered Kumgang mountain tourism project – back up to full speed. These may seem like small steps but they fit well with Park’s trustpolitik policy for North Korea, which focuses on small gestures and incremental steps to build trust and confidence for larger accomplishments down the road.
Q3: What does this small gesture say about North Korea and tensions on the peninsula?
A3: One expects at least a temporary thaw between now and the next set of talks, but there is no guarantee that this will be long-lasting. Saturday’s delegation was the highest level since 2009 when Kim Yang-gon and Kim Ki-nam, then a secretary of the WPK, came to Seoul for Kim Dae-jung’s funeral. They met with President Lee Myung-bak during that trip but this did not lead to any lasting improvement in relations. Moreover, CSIS Korea Chair longitudinal studies find that there has been no significant correlation over the last thirty years between North-South talks and the cessation of military provocations by the DPRK.
Q4: What about the U.S. view?
A4: Any reduction of tension on the peninsula is in U.S. interests. In the run-up to Saturday’s surprise, ROK officials from the foreign ministry and Blue House were in Washington the weeks prior suggesting quietly that Seoul was working patiently to make some progress with the North. So, it is unlikely that the Obama administration was caught off-guard. The level of trust in the bilateral relationship, moreover, is very deep and one presumes there was a level of coordination, if not before, then immediately after the meeting.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Andy Lim is an intern with the Korea Chair.
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