South Korea: Cautious optimism after North’s visit

Three-day visit of North Korea’s Kim Yo-jong was high on symbolism and appeared to reflect a longing for unification.

North Korea South
North Korea's Kim Young-nam wipes his tears as he watched North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra's performance [Reuters]

SeoulSouth Korea‘s government expressed cautious optimism in making progress with inter-Korean relations in the wake of a landmark visit of North Korean officials at the Winter Olympics.

The North Korean high-level delegation’s three-day visit that ended on Sunday “shows that North Korea has a strong will to improve inter-Korean relations, and that Pyongyang can make unprecedented and bold measures if deemed necessary,” South Korea’s unification ministry said in a press release.

It was the first time since the 1950-1953 Korean War that a lineal member of ruling Kim family and the constitutional head of state set foot in South Korea.

The closely-watched 56-hour trip, covered wall-to-wall on news channels, was filled with a string of symbolic moments.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong and its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam paid a visit to the presidential Blue House in Seoul to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday, even the lunch menu reflected the pendulum of the inter-Korean relations.

Food symbolism

Koreans have traditionally attached a great significance to food, so much so that the literal meaning of the Korean word for ‘family member’ is ‘people eating food together’.

The main dish was a soup with fish balls made of dried pollock, a delicacy of Gangwon, the province hosting the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but historically also stretches across the border into North Korea.

Pollock fish are caught off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, travelling back and forth between the northern and the southern waters. It takes a long winter before dried pollack can be served, as it goes through a freezing and thawing process in the mountains.

“Both the North and the South have spent a very long winter. We prepared this dish in the hope that after a long time of endurance, we can have a hearty and warm time like the deep taste of this dried pollock,” a Blue House official explained to reporters.

Other side dishes and desserts were from across the Korean Peninsula.

During the meeting, Kim Yo-jong delivered a message from Kim Jong-un to Moon that he is willing to meet the president in the near future if he visits Pyongyang. A summit would be the third of its kind between top leaders of the two Koreas and first in 11 years.

The delegation met Moon on four additional occasions during their stay in South Korea, putting on a rare show of unity and harmony between the two Koreas.

Moon was joined by Kim Yo-jong and North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics on Friday.

As athletes from the North and the South marched together under the unified Korean Peninsula flag for the first time in 11 years at an international sports event, they stood up and applauded together.

Next day, they watched a women’s ice hockey match between the united Korea team vs Switzerland in Gangneung. It was the first time the two Koreas form a joint sports team in 27 years and the third time in history.

The united team’s crushing defeat of 8 to 0 did not stop them from enjoying the historic moment and cheering the players on.

‘Longing for reunification’

On the last day, President Moon bade farewell to the North Korean delegation at a North Korean art troupe’s music concert in Seoul.

Seohyeon, of South Korea’s popular K-pop band Girls’ Generation, made a surprise appearance and sang a couple of songs together with North Korean singers, including a song longing for reunification.

Kim Yong-nam’s eyes were visibly teary, and he wiped them several times, as another song about reunification rang out across the music hall.

As Kim Yo-jong put it earlier at the luncheon meeting with Moon, relations between the North and the South have made faster progress over the last one month than over the previous few years.

Many experts agree that the Moon administration made achievements in opening up channels of communication with North Korea and putting itself in the driver’s seat to lead Korean affairs.

However, real challenges lie ahead.

Skeptics say that all this is merely diplomatic manoeuvring by Pyongyang to manage the level of tensions, which spiked last year.

“The North Korean government worries about an increasing probability of a US military attack, which might escalate into a major war. So, they decided to look nice for a while, and they also hope to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.

As Lankov pointed out, major fundamentals remain unchanged: Pyongyang is determined to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that could strike anywhere in the US mainland.

Washington and Tokyo do not seem to be impressed by what is seen as Pyongyang’s “charm offensive”.

They have stressed that an annual military exercise between South Korea and the US, which has been postponed until the end of the Olympics, should resume. North Korea has reacted to such military drills angrily, calling it a rehearsal for invasion.

The Trump administration made it clear that they would talk for the sake of talks and North Korea’s denuclearisation should be a precondition to talks.

The Moon administration has to walk a tightrope.

In response to Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Pyongyang, Moon declined to accept it immediately, saying “Let us create the environment first for that to be able to happen”.

He called for North Korea to actively come to the table for dialogue with the US, stressing that such dialogue should take place in order to develop inter-Korean relations.

Seoul is hoping that Pyongyang will take bold measures.

“The government is making various efforts to create a virtuous cycle of the development of inter-Korean relations and the progress in the North’s nuclear issue,” the unification ministry’s spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun said when asked by reporters to elaborate during the press briefing on Monday.

“We believe that there is a shared understanding between two Koreas on improving inter-Korean relations and settling the peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera