WASHINGTON -- North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s call on Tuesday for warmer relations with South Korea was met skeptically, with issue experts saying Pyongyang remains unlikely to shut down themissile and nuclear arms programs that have so long undermined efforts to improve relations between the neighboring states.
Kim, delivering the first televised New Year’s address by a North Korean leader in nearly two decades, was quoted as saying it was time to “remove confrontation between the North and the South” and that “past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war.”
Despite the soothing nature of the speech and its lack of criticism of the United States, observers saw little concrete evidence that the young leader will make notable concessions on Washington’s primary demand that North Korea halt development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles that could deliver them in long-range strikes.
“There is nothing new here. The style of the speech is a little less verbose than in the past, but the content is essentially the same,” said Victor Cha, who served as special envoy for North Korea policy during the George W. Bush administration. “If you go back and read the New Year's statements from the past two years, it is very similar in content,” he stated by e-mail.
Experts told Global Security Newswire the Kim regime is likely seeking to capitalize on the election of a new South Korean president, who promised to pursue a policy of heightened engagement toward the North, by offering pacifying remarks before Park Geun-hye formally assumes office in February.
While President-elect Park comes from the conservative ruling party of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, she has pledged to delink humanitarian aid to North Korea from security concerns. Kim in his speech sought something much more expansive -- a reinvigoration of the bilateral 2000 and 2007 “sunshine” agreements that provided North Korea with billions of dollars in assistance, loans and trade in the hopes of encouraging greater openness and an end to its militaristic policies, theNew York Times reported.
Lee largely shut off the aid spigot after taking office in 2008, asserting that years of generous economic assistance had failed to prod North Korea to shutter its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang reacted harshly to the loss of aid and is widely understood to have been behind two 2010 attacks on South Korea that killed a total of 50 people and brought the Koreas close to the precipice of war. During the Lee administration, North Korea also carried out a second atomic test, fired no less than three long-range rockets, and revealed a uranium enrichment program that could be used to produce nuclear-weapon material.
Cha questioned whether Park would do more than resume lower-level humanitarian aid to North Korea.
“Park is untested right now so it is really too soon to tell” what she will do on North Korea, Sharon Squassoni, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Proliferation Prevention Program told GSN. “I think that delinking some of the humanitarian aid from the security situation, I think you could have some positive benefits there,” Squassoni said.
There is a chance Park might consider resuming broader economic assistance to the impoverished North but under a different framework than the earlier sunshine accords that would lower South Korean payments to Pyongyang, according to Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program.
Cronin said he has heard in recent years from a broad spectrum of South Koreans about their concern with the proxy influence they fear China has gained in North Korea through ramped-up economic assistance. A number of leading South Koreans are interested in pursuing a policy toward North Korea that does not prioritize the nuclear agenda over all other issues, he said.
“They want to pursue another goal at least equally as much as [the denuclearization aim] and that is to incrementally gain influence over North Korea over the long-term” through greater economic engagement, Cronin said.
Deals to develop North Korea’s sparse infrastructure could be one avenue pursued by the incoming Park administration, Cronin said. He also noted prospects for a summit between South Korea’s first female president and Kim, likely in the latter half of the year.
“I think she will be looking at this summit as the beginning of reinvesting South Korean influence in the North,” Cronin said. “She is going to be pressed to find a way that doesn’t give suitcases of money to Kim Jong Un.”
Cronin predicted that 2013 would see some improvements in inter-Korean ties but little headway in longstanding calls for Pyongyang to curb WMD development. Realistically, the best the United States and its allies might hope to achieve is a new deal for North Korea to halt strategic missile and nuclear testing, probably in exchange for foreign aid, he said.
A February 2012 moratorium agreement with the United States collapsed before it could be implemented following the North's April long-range rocket launch. Washington said the firing constituted a breach of the agreement's ban on ballistic missile tests, and withdrew its offer of food assistance to North Korea.
“All sides are going to have to take baby steps in order to move forward,” Cronin noted.