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Changing tack

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
October 6, 2014

Following their highest level talks in five years, North and South Korea have agreed to resume dialogue; a significant step which represents a break from the recent belligerence, analyst Michael Madden tells DW.

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un Symbolbild
Image: Reuters

The North Korean delegation, formally sent to Incheon on October 4 to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, comprised three high-ranking officials. While there seemed to be no major breakthrough from the surprise visit, the countries did agree to hold another round of talks between the end of October and the beginning of November, according to a South Korean statement.

The visit comes just days after Reuters news agency quoted North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations as saying that his country was ready to resume six-party talks on its nuclear program.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye welcomed the visit but stressed that efforts should be made that the high-level contact leads to "regular dialogue, not just a one-time dialogue." Park has been pushing for a resumption of high-level dialogue, stalled since February, to improve ties strained by months of belligerence and military tensions. In the meantime, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen in public since September 3.

North Korea specialist Michael Madden says in a DW interview that part of North Korea's new proposal for senior-level talks is linked to timing as any improvement in bilateral ties under Park should start ahead or around the second year of her presidency. As for Kim Jong Un's absence, he adds, it is likely that he is burned out from overwork - and that would aggravate any underlying physical problems.

DW: How important is this gesture from North Korea? Is this a small breakthrough after months of belligerence?

Michael Madden: It is quite significant the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) took the initiative to propose and agree to a high level interaction with the Republic of Korea (ROK). While it remains to be seen how successfully the proposed talks proceed, this is a break from the recent, mutual belligerence between the two Koreas.

Who are the North Korean officials who came to the ceremony? How important are they and how close are they to Kim Jong Un?

Hwang Pyong So, by dint of his appointment to the National Defense Commission on September 25 and position (since April) as Director of the Korean People's Army (KPA) General Political Department, is one of the DPRK's top four or five officials. Choe Ryong Hae used to have Hwang Pyong So's old job, but is now a Worker's Party of Korea (WPK) Secretary for workers' and social organizations. He is also serving as chairman of the state sports commission.

Kim Yang-ko'n is the WPK's leading official on inter-Korean relations, as well as the country's top civilian intelligence manager. This is a pretty formidable troika of top officials, who are looped into the policy and decision making processes in Pyongyang. Hwang is especially close to North Koran leader Kim Jong Un, and has daily access to him. Choe and Kim are certainly part of Kim Jong Un's brain trust.

How sincere do you think this new offer to resume talks is and how could they improve the bilateral ties?

The North Koreans are certainly sincere about holding senior level talks. The fact that a senior DPRK delegation traveled to ROK, for the first time in over five years, along with relatively amicable interactions between senior officials of the two Koreas represents a modest improvement in inter-Korean relations. With regard to the outcome of the talks, as well as what the DPRK may be willing to discuss, all expectations should be tempered.

What does the fact suggest that this visit came 'out of the blue'?

There were some indications in late August that Pyongyang might send some kind of senior-level delegation to the Incheon games. In the last three weeks, two of the men in the delegation were appointed to the jobs which gave them a pretext - a kind of a cover - to attend the 17th Asian Games and interact with senior ROK officials. I strongly suspect that Pyongyang knew it would maximize media exposure by timing their attendance to the closing ceremony.

Are there any further indications of a change of tack in North Korea?

With the DPRK's external relations, particularly on strategic issues, the door is always open. The DPRK is always ready for interactions. The problem awaiting potential interlocutors is that the North Koreans are not inclined to being lectured about their trespasses by foreigners, nor do they want to interact with foreign diplomats who go on to disseminate press releases about how they harangued the North Koreans over human rights.

What factors may the driving the regime to this apparent change in policy?

Part of this new proposal for senior-level talks between the two Koreas is timing; if any improvement in inter-Korean relations will be substantively realized under the Park Administration, then the yeoman's work of negotiations and working-level meetings will have to start ahead or around the second year of her presidency (February 2015).

The DPRK has also opened a lot of special economic and trade zones throughout the country. A modicum of improvement in inter-Korea relations could create enough stability in regional security to attract some foreign investment.

Nordkorea Treffen Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Ha, Kim Yoang Gon, Ryoo Kihl-jae
It is quite significant the North Korea took the initiative to propose and agree to a high level interaction with South Korea, says MaddenImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Yonhap/Y. Tae-hyun

There have been reports lately in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being ill. He has not been seen in public since September 3. What can you tell us about this?

Kim Yang-ko'n told senior ROK officials that Kim Jong Un was not in ill health. On the other hand, there is a lot of information, including a narration in a recent film about Kim Jong Un's activities, pointing Kim Jong Un as being under the weather.

He's likely burned out from overwork - and that would aggravate any underlying physical problems. It's possible that a different external environment could mitigate some of Kim Jong Un's work-related stress.

Michael Madden is a specialist on North Korea and the sole author and editor of the website NK Leadership Watch.