Editorial: Don't scare North Korea off a Pyongyang Spring

If policy in the two Koreas starts to shift, the outside world can be more positive, too

Share
Related Topics

To say that the new leader of North Korea is sending conflicting signals would be an understatement. It is barely three weeks since Pyongyang announced the successful launch of a long-range rocket and called people on to the streets to hail this great national achievement. Yet, as 2012 passed into 2013, we saw Pyongyang celebrate (the Western) New Year with a fireworks display for the first time and the first televised message by a North Korean leader for 19 years. Nor did Kim Jong-un use the occasion simply to wish his fellow countrymen a happy New Year. He spoke of the need to "remove confrontation between the North and the South" and called for the country's scientific successes in space to be replicated in the national economy on Earth.

So is this a country, and a leader, trying to threaten its neighbours or to court them? On the one hand is North Korea's unmonitored nuclear capability, its missile tests (successful and failed) and its intimidating shows of well-drilled unity. On the other is the more modern and human face showed by Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his father just over a year ago – the televised visit to an amusement park, appearances with his wife, and hints of a more normal family life. Which face is real?

The most obvious conclusion is that Pyongyang actually intends to show both faces at once: the more aggressive one to protect itself in the light of what it might well see as its economic vulnerability and general insecurity; the other, more benevolent, to test the temperature for an opening to the big, wide world. And if this dual intention is there, the very worst response would be either to dismiss out of hand what might be a genuine overture or, at the opposite extreme, to embrace it unconditionally, ignoring Pyongyang's dictatorial ways, its unpredictability and its military capacity.

In this respect, it is disappointing that the first response from South Korea today was so dismissive, with the minister responsible for relations with the North describing Mr Kim's message as bland and lacking ground-breaking proposals. It is to be hoped these remarks were designed for domestic consumption, and that Seoul will, after a period of reflection, convey a more positive message in private, perhaps even a conditional readiness to broach a new engagement.

That may not be easy. The mood in the South is marked by wariness after the unprovoked military attacks offshore in 2010, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, and the recent missile launch. But none of this prevented the South's voters from electing Park Geun-hye as the country's next leader, a politician reputed to be more hardline towards the North than her predecessor was, but who also promised to initiate unconditional talks. One interpretation of Mr Kim's New Year address is that it was part of a response to that proposal.

And if it was, and if policy in the two Koreas starts to shift, even fractionally, the rest of the world can afford to sound a little more positive, too. Of course, due caution must be shown towards the North's nuclear intentions and it must be understood that Pyongyang might, once again, just be angling for food aid. But it must also be recognised that economic and political reform – if this mammoth task is what Kim Jong-un has in mind – is fraught with risk for any leader at the best of times, and these are far from being the best of times.

Mr Kim's real intentions need to be explored, and, in the meantime, the outside world should do nothing that would undermine his authority or tempt him to retrench. Any defusing of tension on the Korean peninsula needs Pyongyang to come in from the cold. If it does, the whole region, and the world, stand to benefit.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas