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Why the Rare Visit from NKs Top-Ranking Officials?

[Kim Hyo Jin's Northeast Asia Puzzle]
Kim Hyo Jin, Head of Research and Planning at the Inter-Korean Economic Research Institute  |  2014-10-06 23:57

Its an earth-shattering moment. The fact that Pyongyang would send three of its highest-ranking officials through Incheon International Airport [in South Korea] to attend the closing ceremony for the Asian Games is surely one of the strongest signs of desperation yet in its six-decade history.

Amidst rumors surrounding the mysterious absence of leader Kim Jong Un from public sight, what does the abrupt visit from the three-member delegation signal? Why did the top three officials all have to make this trip together? How much sincerity from the leader do they come with? It cant be unrelated to Kim Jong Un. That would almost be like seeking asylum. And they probably didnt come to leave empty-handed.

Would they have come with a major negotiating card? What would it be? Do they have a hidden agenda? The chain of questions continues on as such. There are three hypotheses that can be presented on the nature of this trip.

First, it was a trip to secure autonomy in the North. Think of a situation in which Kim Jong Un is unable to govern the country. The three say they will prepare for post-Kim governance, and meanwhile, ask the South to act as a buffer for them. If Seoul protects the current senior leadership, they argue they will get the country back on track and make a transition to being a socialist country.

Second, it could be a handover to the South. Say North Korea has completely lost the means to propel itself forward. It can no longer sustain itself under the current political system, and they ask for Seoul to actively engage in the North. So, in effect, it would mean unification. They came to propel talks on the specific method and direction of unification.

Third, the North wants to position itself as a neutral autonomous republic. China and Russia are always watching for the right moment to encroach on North Korea. Pyongyang knows immediate unification is difficult, but it cannot hold up its existing system. So, they have extended a hand, asking Seoul to help make the North the Switzerland of Northeast Asia.

These three hypotheses are all simply potential scenarios that could have played out. But they all carry one common element: Pyongyang does not want to be dependent on China or Russia. Without help from the South, it knows it cannot receive any significant support from the U.S. This also means Pyongyang is currently incapable of maintaining ties with other countries on its own.

The problem is how ready is the South for any of these needs from the North? The most likely possibility is that Pyongyang wants some kind of amalgamation of the first and third hypothesis. In the long run, North Korea will not be able to survive, if it does not transition to socialism and adopt capitalism from there. They are well aware of this.

However, North Korea lacks the capability to make that transition on its own and is in desperate need of a partner it can trust that will throw itself behind the task. Who would that partner be? It seems a natural conclusion that rather than the so-called blood brother China, the South would be the proper fit.

But will one meeting suffice for building trust and mutually confirm commitment among the two sides? The North is likely to unfold a well-calculated indirect strategy to achieve its goal. It wont whip out what it really wants from beginning. Instead, it will try to gauge the Souths competence and underlying intentions through a number of methods, and then make its decision.

If it determines the South cannot be trusted for this trade, what will the next step be? Does it have other intentions? Could it be that the three made this visit together as a safety measure to ensure they make the right decision? This offers proof to how substantial the issue at hand is.

If they determine those currently in power cannot be protected, Pyongyang will turn on Seoul and bolster its aggression to a level that could even cause war in some parts of the peninsula. They are more than aware that violence is the only exit and outlet for despair in a country without hope.

It makes sense that Seoul would try to accommodate Pyongyangs needs as much as it can. Its hard to believe it would be daft enough to rattle on about the Norths past wrongdoings to these three men and make a blunder in this strategic game of chess. But, once the atmosphere turns sour, the North will believe it is a no-go.

What if though they came for none of the three reasons, and theres a fourth: surveillance? [During the Korean War] American general Douglas MacArthur went the extra mile to convince Pyongyang that Wonsan [on the east side of the Korean Peninsula] would be the grounds of invasion instead of Incheon [where it successfully conducted its landing]. The Battle of Incheon was a success thanks to the sacrifice of high-ranking officers from the South Korean side.

If, in its final plot to launch war against the South, Pyongyang had sent the three in order to assess Seouls North Korea strategy, what would the visit be about? Would it be right to guess the envoys carried a meaningless message of lies to deceive and throw the country into confusion, while it waits for the final commitment to wage war against the South?

All these hypotheses related to national security should be carefully considered. We must be vigilant against groundless sentiments of hope and also gratuitous thoughts of pessimism. A hard look at reality is what we need. By that, I mean we need to treat anything that has even a one percent possibility of occurring as if it is happening already.  

When policymakers face reality, premature and biased decisions are filtered out. This is the time to abandon all ideological preconceptions. What the North truly has in mind will surface soon enough.

* Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee

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