The Incheon Visit

October 10, 2014 7:00 AM

The weekend visit to the closing ceremony of the Incheon games by a North Korean delegation headed by Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yang Gon has raised hopes for an improvement in North-South relations. The trip yielded agreement to hold a further round of “high-level” talks in late October or early November, and thus was a boon to Park Geun Hye’s struggling concept of Trustpolitik (see my more extended treatment here). South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said this week that nothing is off the agenda, including a lifting of the post-Cheonan sanctions, the reopening of the Mt. Kumgang tourist resort and a resumption aid. There were already small signals before the visit that South Korea was reconsidering limits on shipments of fertilizer. The talks will provide an opening, including for the South Korean opposition, which constitutes a cheering squad for a more forthcoming policy.

President Park offered to meet with the delegation—the North Koreans declined—and suggested that talks be institutionalized. Protocol and gamesmanship have always been an issue in the North-South dialogue: the “high level” talks in February were held with the first deputy chief of President Park’s Office of National Security and the deputy minister of the North Korean United Front Department as the heads of delegations. But the high-powered North Korean delegation met (albeit only for 15 minutes) with South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won and with the head of the Office of National Security over lunch. Ministerial-level talks were a central feature of the Roh Moo Hyun era, and the President’s comment about regularizing talks raised suggestions—quickly doused by the Blue House—that a summit might be in the offing. At least some Chinese commentators jumped on the visit to press their mantra that the North Koreans are showing sincerity and that improved North-South relations will permit a jump-start of the Six Party Talks as well. Several South Korean commentators also noted that this could signal a genuine effort on the part of North Korea to pivot away from its heavy reliance on China (Kim Hyo Jin in the DailyNK)

But the visit also spotlighted recent debates about what—if anything—is going on in the North Korean political hierarchy since the apparent demotion of Choe Ryong Hae and the disappearance of Kim Jong Un from public view. It is wholly appropriate for Seoul to pursue this initiative. Why not? Nothing else is working. But it is also important to keep in mind that a host of domestic political factors may be driving this move that have nothing to do with a desire for rapprochement. The current initiative could easily be yet another swing in the recurrent cycle of short-lived tactical moves on the part of Pyongyang.

First, at the extreme end of the spectrum is the speculation that Kim Jong Un himself is out and the visit was designed to signal control and continuity. Gordon Chang has an uncharacteristically rumor-mill piece that lays out the speculation, which includes the idea that there has been a coup. But there are more legitimate versions of the argument, mostly from the sharp analysts at New Focus International (NFI). Jang Jin-sung argues that the visit reflects not only the incoherence of policy but the incoherence of the leadership itself. An earlier post parsed a number of details of the visit, such as the bodyguard details, and concluded that the visit confirmed Hwang Pyong So’s rising stature and even dominance over the political system.

The delegation was billed as “last minute,” but this is almost certainly not the case; the visit was clearly related to recent political developments and helps put them in perspective. At the end of September, Choe Ryong Hae was demoted from the National Defense Commission and replaced by Hwang, who had been elevated from his crucial position in the Organization and Guidance department to the even more powerful positions of director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. (We were only half right about Choe’s demotion. He is clearly a princeling and has survived as chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission, a position of some significance given Kim Jong Un’s penchant for using sport for ideological ends. However, it should also be noted that the job was formerly held by Kim Jong Un’s late uncle, the late Jang Song Taek.) Hwang’s promotion sends the message that this visit was as “high-level” as there is. An interesting detail: Hwang arrived in military uniform, even though his career has been entirely in the party, also reminding us exactly what kind of regime this actually is.

But the question of the level of delegation does not address its underlying or accompanying purposes. Several are of significance. First, it is clear that the delegation was carrying a message that Kim Jong Un’s health issues were not serious, that nothing should be read into his absence, and in any case the regime was organized for any possible contingencies. No sooner had the visit concluded than a probe and incident occurred along the Northern Limit Line. Coincidence?

But the other possibility is that the visit should be read not through the lens of North-South relations, but through the lens of sport. The stated purpose of this visit was to attend the closing ceremony of the Incheon games, where North Korean athletes acquitted themselves well (36 medals, 11 of them gold). North Korea’s handling of its participation in the games, however, was erratic to say the least, and in one important respect was a domestic debacle. Kim Jong Un “ordered” a cheering squad to go to South Korea, but the plan did not materialize for reasons that remain unknown. But the Supreme Leader “ordering” something that does not transpire is not a small issue.

The most interesting interpretation of the visit that we have seen comes from Choi Song Min at the DailyNK. An informant from North Hamgyong reported to the DailyNK that on October 4, urgent lectures were organized at work units explaining that the visit by the high-ranking team showed the devotion of Kim Jong Un to the athletes and them to him. “With his great love and consideration, Marshal Kim Jong Eun personally organized the dispatch of [Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yang Geon] and even provided them with a special plane.” The visit will thus solve the Propaganda Department’s difficulty in managing the failed cheering squad issue and refocus attention on North Korea’s sporting achievements, clearly a central focus of Kim Jong Un’s rule.

As always, we have to take all of this with a grain of salt. The North Korean delegation brought nothing with them beyond the willingness to hold talks, and with an agenda that largely favors the DPRK’s interest in a relaxation of sanctions and an increase in aid, trade and investment. This might be the right thing to do, but we cannot assume that the visit marks any fundamental shift in North Korea’s approach to the South.

Thanks to Chris Green and Aidan-Foster Carter; Aidan’s analysis can be found at NKNews.

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