The latest reports about US outreach to North Korea via various channels going unmet has sparked much discussion since the news broke last Friday. It may simply mean that North Korea hasn’t decided its approach to the US yet. Or the question might be, is the game afoot?
The North hadn’t, until now, said anything about the US-ROK joint exercises that began on March 8. Kim Yo Jong raises them for the first time in a colorful statement issued last night, but doesn’t call them, as the North often does, dangerous or a threat. Rather, they are characterized as a “serious challenge,” meaning a political challenge to the North’s offer—set forth in the Eighth Party Congress held in January—to return to the days of inter-Korean dialogue in 2018 depending on the South Korean “attitude.”
The US-ROK joint military exercises were a litmus test, and by holding them again, Kim Yo Jong claims, the South crossed a red line. In fact, the failure on Seoul’s part is described as so serious that Pyongyang has “put on the agenda” the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland—a North Korean front organization often used over the decades as the conduit for inter-Korean dialogue. Having blown up the inter-Korean liaison office building last June, there isn’t much low-hanging fruit left. There is, however, a kettledrum sounding off-stage in Kim’s warning that if the South dares “more provocative acts” (unspecified), the North “may” (note, not “will”) abrogate the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement of September 2018.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement is transparently aimed at South Korea in advance of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Seoul. The bottom line is pretty clear: President Moon Jae-in might still make some sort of progress in inter-Korean relations before the end of his term—which is fast approaching at the beginning of next year—but only IF he presses the US and doesn’t line up 100 percent with a new US policy should it call for more pressure against the North.
Since the Biden administration took office, Pyongyang has seen Moon wriggling in a satisfactory way and wants to make sure it continues. Note how the statement ends by holding out the possibility of returning to inter-Korean dialogue. By saying the warm spring days of 2018 “won’t come easily,” it is, in effect, leaving the door open.
Pyongyang knows the reference to the “new US administration” will get enormous attention. For that reason, it kept this pithy—only two sentences.
We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land.
If it wants to sleep in peace for [sic] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.
In so many words, the message is that the door is open to the US for reengagement at some point—as Kim Jong Un indicated in his speech at the Eighth Party Congress—but Pyongyang is still carefully watching and waiting for Washington’s “first step.” That may, in some respects, be meant to be picking up on something said in the US messages to the North over the past several weeks, or it may be Pyongyang’s first move to put the ball in Washington’s court. From this remove, one cannot tell.
“It Will Be Hard to See Again Spring Days Three Years Ago,” KCNA, March 16, 2021.