North Korea Changes Its Tune (Again)
Image Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

North Korea Changes Its Tune (Again)


After capturing the world’s attention by threatening “warmongers” in the U.S. and South Korea with “thermonuclear war” and by unilaterally shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, North Korea gradually toned down its bellicose rhetoric and eventually all but disappeared from the radar
of the international community. But anyone who follows the news of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, North Korea’s official news outlet aimed at an international audience) on a daily basis will have noticed a recent rhetorical shift in the usually flamboyant articles. The daily Japan bashing and the reprimands against the U.S. presence in South Korea are still there. However since approximately the beginning of August the language toward its Southern neighbor changed almost beyond recognition. Not only did the KCNA refrain from referring to South Korea in derogatory terms, it embarked on a charm offensive which almost bordered to desperation for dialogue and negotiation.

The realization of the colossal miscalculation of using the actual shutdown of Kaesong, rather than the threat of a shutdown, as a bargaining chip is most likely the main reason behind Pyongyang’s change of tone, but the fact that North Korea’s latest provocation was met with “strategic patience” by the Obama administration and overt dissatisfaction by Beijing might have taken North Korea by surprise, as this broke the familiar pattern of fence-mending responses. In the end, North Korea was left with an even more tarnished reputation and a defunct industrial complex which until then had benefited the North far more than the South. For hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un, only 30 years old and surrounded by skeptical veterans, this disastrous outcome must have felt like a dangerous blow to his credibility as a leader.

As inter-Korean trade plummeted to its lowest level since the Sunshine Policy was enacted some 15 years ago—despite a new South Korean president who was actually willing to deal with North Korea on relatively friendly terms—the leadership in Pyongyang belatedly realized their mistake. Pyongyang’s atonement attempts have been reflected almost daily in the articles by the KCNA in the month of August. Acknowledgement of its provocation failure is particularly evidenced by three often reoccurring tendencies in the KCNA articles in August: an almost desperate eagerness to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex; a complete absence of direct criticism of the ongoing U.S.-South Korea joint military drill Ulchi Freedom-Guardian; and an attempt to improve its international image by presenting itself as a “peace-loving state.”

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Calling for Cooperation

Just a cursory glance at the KCNA’s headlines throughout August reveals Pyongyang’s newfound desire for cooperation with the South. Take these mid-August headlines: “Rodong Sinmun [Workers” Newspaper] Calls for Mending North-South Relations,” “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Improving Relations with S. Korea through Dialogue” and “Rodong Sinmun Calls for North-South Dialogue, Cooperation.” Add to them countless calls for unity and reunification: “Rodong Sinmun Calls on Koreans to Turn Out in Efforts to Achieve Reunification” (August 13), “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Ending National Division” (August 14), “All Koreans Called upon to Bring Future in Unity” (August 15), “Opening Up New Phase of Reconciliation, Unity Called for” (August 15).

These headlines are a far cry from those of March and April which among other things warned of “retaliatory action […] without any notice” and “powerful sledge-hammer blows” against the South (April 16, “KPA Supreme Command Sends Ultimatum to S. Korean Puppet Forces”). When the two Koreas finally came to an agreement on the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on August 14, the KCNA stated that normalization of operations “will bring joy to all compatriots aspiring after reconciliation, cooperation, reunification and improved inter-Korean relations” (August 14, “7th Round of North-South Working-level Talks Held”). The restoration of one of the North’s biggest legitimate foreign currency earners was certainly a good reason to jump for joy.

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