October 10, 2014 | Commentary on Asia and the Pacific, North Korea, South Korea

North Korea's Deceptive Charm Offensive

North Korea surprised everyone last weekend with its decision to send a senior delegation to the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in South Korea. As recently as April, after all, Pyongyang threatened to incinerate Seoul, Tokyo and Washington with nuclear weapons. In the months since, North Korea has been relatively quiescent, content to issue daily diatribes against President Park Geun-hye and conduct an unprecedented number of missile tests.

North Korea's motives for the move are unclear. North Korean leaders are probably looking for ways to overcome the country's international isolation and undermine support for international sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's repeated violations of U.N. resolutions and international law. But the delegation led by Hwang Pyong So, vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and unofficially the second-most powerful man in North Korea, may have had a more specific intent: to dispel rumors of Kim Jong Un's failing health, or of any instability within the regime. Those rumors continue to swirl because of the leader's extended absence from public view.

Kim Jong Un's provocative antics have strained relations with key ally China enough to prevent a summit meeting since Kim took power. Meanwhile, the regime's outreach to Japan has stalled, and Washington remains wary of engagement following the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day Agreement. Having worsened its diplomatic standing with so many capitals, Pyongyang probably sees Seoul as the most pliable link in the international coalition against it. According to private comments by South Korean officials, Seoul faces a tremendous amount of domestic pressure to show the North greater "creativity and flexibility" - code phrases for softening its demands for North Korea to begin complying with U.N. denuclearization resolutions prior to serious engagement.

Progressive South Koreans are always eager to resume dialogue without conditions. But more important, senior members of the ruling, conservative Saenuri Party, as well as the conservative media, have begun advocating the removal of sanctions imposed after North Korea sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010, killing 46 sailors.

Park faces growing public criticism for her trustpolitik (trust-building) policy's failure to spur any progress toward better inter-Korean relations. The imperative of "doing something" with Pyongyang seems to outweigh North Korea's repeated rejections of dialogue, its continued threats, and the vile insults it directs at Park. Domestic politics thus may make Park more amenable to accepting at least some of North Korea's terms for re-engagement. South Korea could also be motivated by concerns arising from Tokyo's recent agreement with North Korea over Japanese abductees. Though North Korean stonewalling has put the initiative on hold for now, Seoul is distrustful of Japanese intentions and wary of being left behind in engaging North Korea.

South Korean officials say the North Korean delegation to the games carried a verbal message from Kim Jong Un, but they were coy on its contents. The two Koreas agreed during the visit to hold follow-on senior-level reconciliation talks in late October or early November.

North Korea's volte-face is striking given the invective it showered on President Park for stressing, in a speech earlier this year in Dresden, her desire to achieve Korean reunification. Pyongyang dismissed her initiative as a thinly veiled attempt to absorb the North and chastized Seoul for "prattling on and dreaming about" unrealistic reunification proposals.  Instead, the regime called for a confederation of the two Koreas.

The regime also responded angrily to Park's support of a U.N. report published in February on North Korean human rights abuses. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry assessed the regime's human rights violations to be so egregious and systemic that they qualify as crimes against humanity. Pyongyang has sought to derail ongoing efforts to bring the commission's recommendations to a vote at the United Nations.

The prospects for progress in inter-Korean relations are always dicey. The history of the two Koreas is littered with the shattered hopes of countless previous attempts at getting Pyongyang to lower tensions and abide by its denuclearization pledges.

During his speech at last month's U.N. General Assembly, North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Su Yong reiterated the regime's refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons, dashing media speculation that his appearance signaled Pyongyang's intent to extend an olive leaf. Lee declared that North Korea's weapons were "not a bargaining chip to be exchanged for something else." Behind the scenes, the regime continues to make progress on its nuclear weapons programs and on developing a spectrum of missiles capable of delivering them.

Pyongyang's surprise outreach at the Asian Games could portend a reduction of tensions on the Peninsula and progress on inter-Korean reconciliation. But we've been down this path before. It's always rocky and usually ends in a morass of broken promises. Let's hope the Park administration won't be overeager to embrace an illusion of progress.

 - Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in Real Clear World