Once again, the North Koreans have signaled that they might be willing to resume negotiations over relations with South Korea and the world, this coming in a New Year’s address by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Once again, optimists in South Korea, Japan and the US have allowed — in a paraphrase of Samuel Johnson — hope to triumph over experience and suggested that the North Koreans are ready to shed their nuclear weapons and make peace.
Yet once again, realists in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have muttered darkly, “forget it, just forget it,” because the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear arms, the missiles they are developing to deliver them in and the threat of violence.
All three nations, plus China and Russia, have driven around this racetrack many times before only to come to a smoldering halt. Six rounds of the so-called six party talks took place from 2003 to 2007, then were discontinued in 2009 and have been lifeless ever since.
What is new is the fluid situation among the six parties, where all but one — ironically North Korea — have new governments.
In Washington, the second administration of US President Barack Obama is being formed with new secretaries of state, defense and treasury, plus a new CIA director. In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in office only since last month and is still groping his way along.
In Seoul, South Korean president-Elect Park Geun-hye will become the country’s first female, but will not take office until Feb. 25. In Beijing, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) is still gathering the reins of power. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin began his second term only in May last year.
In Pyongyang, Kim, who took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, has consolidated his control of the government, the North Korean Communist Party and, most importantly, the Korean People’s Army. He has established what one experienced observer called “a dynamically stable regime.”
Alexandre Mansourov, a former Russian diplomat who once studied in a North Korean university, wrote that North Korea’s satellite launch last month will “further boost Kim Jong-un’s domestic legitimacy, increase his political capital, undermine potential critics, help him silence military discontent and increase his international stature.”
In particular, Kim Jong-un has brought “the military’s senior leadership under unquestionable party control, repeatedly purging and publicly subduing it, and dramatically curtailing the military’s policymaking influence,” Mansourov wrote from a Washington think tank.
It may be that when Kim Jong-un wrote his New Year’s speech, he figured that North Korea could take advantage of these new governments. In contrast to earlier blasts erupting from Pyongyang, anti-South Korean, anti-Japanese and anti-US invective was missing.
Kim Jong-un only said: “The moves of the imperialists to interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign states and their acts of military aggression pose a serious threat to peace and security of mankind. The Asia-Pacific region, the Korean Peninsula in particular, has become the hottest spot in the world.”
Instead, Kim Jong-un focused on economic problems, exhorting North Koreans to work harder, especially in agriculture, light industry, mining and electric power.
“All units of the national economy should launch a vigorous general offensive to boost production in hearty response to the party’s militant slogan,” Kim Jong-un said.
Indirectly admitting that North Korea’s economy was in deep trouble, Kim Jong-un said: “All economic undertakings for this year should be geared to effecting a radical increase in production and stabilizing and improving the people’s living standards.”
Two visiting Americans, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt experienced North Korea’s deprivation first-hand last week. Even when inside modern buildings, they and their North Korean hosts remained bundled up in heavy winter overcoats to ward off the lack of heating.
As his neighbors in China have insisted for themselves, Kim Jong-un demanded an end to corruption.
“To effect a radical change in this year’s campaign to build a thriving socialist country, officials should make a fundamental turnabout in their ideological viewpoint, work style and attitude,” he said.
Evans Revere, a retired senior US Department of State official and former second-in-charge of the US embassy in Seoul, said that the flurry of speculation that Kim Jong-un’s speech was a sign that North Korea would change tactics.
“Prepare to be disappointed,” Revere wrote. “Experience tells us that a healthy dose of skepticism is in order when we see hints of possible change in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. We have been down this road many times before and we are best served by taking such pronouncements from Pyongyang with a large grain of salt.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.