By Daniel Chan
As winter hits the Korean Peninsula and temperatures begin to drop, the political climate between South and North Korea appears to be finally warming up after more than a year of virtual silence, ever since their relationship plummeted after an alleged North Korean nuclear test on February 2013.
In a surprise trip made by an eleven member North Korean delegation, Hwang Pyongso, currently the top political officer of the North Korean military, attended the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. The visit was announced only an hour before the delegation’s arrival, which was completely unexpected, particularly since North Korean propaganda authorities recently lashed out against the South Korean Minister of National defence Han Min Gu, comparing him to an “old rabid dog noisily barking at the moon”.
In August, North Korea also rejected the South Korean proposition of resuming talks on a second round of family reunions, for family members who were forcibly separated by the Korean War six decades ago, insisting that Seoul first stop activists in the South from sending them propaganda-bearing balloons.
Nonetheless, top South Korean policy makers met the North Korean delegation on 4 October 2014. A statement from Seoul on the discussions did not specify the exact topics of their exchange, but according to the Ministry of Unification, the two sides seemed to share an interest in a second round of family reunions. As the Ministry said in a statement, “While calling the upcoming talks a second round of dialogue, the North explained that it intended to hold more rounds of South-North talks in the future”.
It is worth noticing that family reunions seem to play an important role in breaking the ice between the two states, possibly because such a cooperation is purely humanitarian on both sides and has no economic implications. Nonetheless, they reflect both sides’ reluctance to engage in higher-level exchanges.
The surprise visit also happened amid speculations about the health of Kim Jong Un, as he suspended all public appearances. Last week, on North Korean television, he was shown to be limping during a routine visit to a factory and said that he “was not feeling well”. Without any further information on his condition, experts are left guessing. Some suggest that he was only suffering from a mild case of gout, a form of arthritis often called the king’s malady since it can be triggered by a rich diet and sedentary lifestyle. Both Kim’s father and grandfather suffered from gout. Kim could very well be suffering from the same disorder as the man has grown considerably in size since he took power. On the other hand, other speculators suggest that his illness and disappearance could be a telltale sign that he has lost control of the government, and North Korea has a full scale revolution at hand. Unfortunately with the country’s tendency to conceal information, it is simply too early to tell.
Is this surprise visit a sign that the relationship between the North and the South is finally warming up? Or is it going to end prematurely again after another episode of conflict between them? Skeptics have claimed that there had been far too many attempts at establishing a lasting diplomatic channel between the two nations for this one to be any more significant than the others. But putting all speculations aside, one thing is certain: behind all that fog of power and influence, this is the same 31-year old man who threatened the world with nuclear attacks and made open militaristic threats to its Southern counterpart. At the same time, the visit shows no foul play. Could this be a turning point to North Korea’s foreign policy? At this point, one can only speculate, as the world observes the unfolding of this chapter.Featured Image Credit: David Spencer, Flickr CC. License available here.