|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un embraces a child during a performance to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea, Oct. 12. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's reference to South Korea during a commemorative speech for the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), Saturday, is raising questions about the future of inter-Korean relations.
Right after offering consolation to the pandemic-hit world, he said: "I also send this warm wish of mine to our beloved countrymen in the South, and hope that this health crisis will come to an end as early as possible and the day will come when the North and South take each other's hands again."
The local media has taken note of the unusually friendly tone of the message, coming on the heels of a latest inter-Korean conflict over the North's Sept. 22 shooting death of a South Korean official who crossed into North Korea's territorial waters.
Experts are divided on what Kim's remarks could lead to in terms of inter-Korean relations.
Some said that they could be a sign of the regime's shift from its latest series of hostile actions toward the South, including the destruction of an inter-Korean liaison office in June and the killing of the maritime official.
"The expression 'beloved' and his wish to sit down with South Korea again can been seen as a show of the North Korean leader's determination for a turnaround in the North's hostile South Korea policy," Hong Min, director of the North Korean division at the Korean Institute for National Unification, told The Korea Times.
But first, the global health crisis will have to subside before North Korea shows more enthusiasm for inter-Korean relations, he said. "The speech means that when Pyongyang determines that the COVID-19 situation is controlled internationally, it could be willing to take a more cooperatives stance."
There are also concerns that Seoul is not giving due focus on the show of Kim's weapons, as the North disclosed a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a parade the same day. The North Korean leader also pledged to strengthen "war deterrence" for "righteous self-defense," saying, "As everyone will clearly see today, comparing it with the military parade held in this place in celebration of the 70th founding anniversary of the WPK only five years ago, the modernity of our military forces has remarkably improved and anyone can easily guess the speed of its development."
"Kim's weapons speak louder than his words, making clear that Pyongyang isn't currently interested in talking peace with Seoul or negotiating denuclearization with Washington," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Korea Times. "North Korea not only rolled out a new strategic weapon, ICBM, designed to deliver a larger payload to the United States, it also displayed many qualitative and quantitative upgrades to conventional weapons aimed at South Korea."
Others stress that Seoul should be cautious not to be misled by Kim's cursory message.
"It would have been much longer or detailed if this were true. The brevity of the statement indicates that the reference is essentially pro forma, and lacks substance," a North Korea studies scholar told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. "Currently, the future of the end-of-war declaration, not to mention the entire pro-engagement policy toward North Korea, is highly uncertain due the unpopularity of Moon's policies at home, the presidential election in the United States, and the escalation of Sino-American tensions fueled by COVID-19 on top of already existing conflicts in trade, global governance, an arms race, diplomacy, etc."
Kim's remarks have prompted Cheong Wa Dae and the government to issue hopeful responses about Pyongyang's return to negotiations to improve relations and to again start discussing a declaration ending the war in line with President Moon Jae-in's proposal at last month's United Nations General Assembly and a speech at a gala for the Korea Society last week.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Sunday that it had taken note of Pyongyang expressing its hope to restore inter-Korean relations as soon as a suitable environment is created. "We look forward to North Korea's response to President Moon's proposal for the end-of-war declaration and a health cooperation framework in Northeast Asia from his keynote speech at the 75th United Nations General Assembly in September."