Fog on the Han: North Says It Wants a Delegation at Park Geun-hye’s Inauguration
While Eric Schmidt and his daughter Sophie have been dominating the media discourse, talk elsewhere has been about the discovery of what could be an extension to one of the DPRK’s notorious prison camps and, even more recently, the shocking revelation that a list of the personal details of Seoul-based defectors has entered North Korean hands. All the while, another intriguing story has evaded detailed coverage: a call for an invitation from a northern neighbor. Thanks to vigilance by Steven Denney in Seoul, that call can be analyzed here. — Adam Cathcart
Fog on the Han: North Korea Says it Wants to Send a Delegation to Park Geun-hye’s Inauguration
by Steven Denney and Christopher Green
Northeast Asia: Transitions and Inaugurations Abound | In South Korea, a political transition of a particularly notable sort is slowly getting underway. On February 25th, president-elect Park Geun-hye will be sworn in at the National Assembly building in central Seoul. The inauguration, for which approximately 60,000 invitations have been sent out, will be no ordinary ceremony. Though President Barack Obama’s second inauguration was undoubtedly also significant, the inauguration of Northeast Asia’s first female president is arguably the more momentous event. Not only that, the fact that president-elect Park is the daughter of divisive former dictator Park Chung-hee makes it all the more meaningful— although, in a country as politically rent asunder as South Korea, whether that meaning is positive or negative depends almost entirely on political affiliation.
A combination of gender and legacy is certainly sufficient to make the event significant. However, North Korea can always be relied upon to up the ante, and this time is no different; the Kim Jong-un regime has reportedly requested permission for a North Korean delegation to attend. Five years under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration have been marked, for better or worse, by an almost complete cessation of bilateral dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang, but now, out of sight in the North but clearly watching very carefully, the team surrounding Kim Jong-un has chosen to make its first move, breaking the diplomatic stalemate.
An Overshadowed Invitation: Playing on Existing Ideas | According to the Chosun TV exclusive, on an unspecified date Kim Jong-un sent the request to the fledgling transition team of Park Geun-hye. Though Chosun TV appears to have obtained a “leak” of the news, the idea of inviting a North Korean delegation had seemingly been discussed before, albeit not seriously considered. In a January 11 report published by the liberal Hankyoreh and a January 13 report by the quasi-state news agency Yonhap, the presidential inauguration chairperson Kim Jeon-seon was quoted as saying that the idea of inviting a North Korean delegation had yet to be seriously discussed, though he added that it hadn’t been ruled out.
The idea of a North Korean delegation attending the inauguration isn’t a foreign thought to astute Western analysts. CFR’s Scott Snyder was not at all surprised. In an e-mail communiqué with SinoNK, Snyder stated, “The issue of how to handle an invitation for a North Korean delegation to the inauguration was always likely to be an early and potentially consequential test for South Korea’s new administration in North Korea’s eyes.”
“The Park team must decide both the protocol of whether, or how, to invite a North Korean delegation for the inauguration and what she will say about inter-Korean relations in the inauguration address itself,” he went on. “These decisions will shape the early parameters for inter-Korean engagement and will provide a baseline for North Korea to evaluate Park Geun-hye’s intentions and aspirations with the North.”
The difficulty for Park is that the call for a delegation to travel south on February 25th looks a lot like a classic political ploy, or, as Snyder put it, a “test.” Never one to willingly wait-and-see what others may choose to do, the request means the North has skillfully taken the inter-Korean initiative, putting itself in the driving seat to foster internal divisions within the incoming administration and drive a fresh wedge between the already polarized ruling conservative and opposition progressive parties.
After all, if Park agrees to accommodate a North Korean delegation then she is sure to face accusations from the right that she is both abrogating the “principles” of three years of post-Cheonan, post-Yeonpyeong Island governance and short-selling the lives of the brave South Korean soldiers and civilians who died in both attacks. Conversely, if she refuses then it will be the left launching the potshots, accusing her of maintaining division on the peninsula and utterly failing to respond to a statesmanlike request from the deceptively friendly new broom in Pyongyang. In other words, she’s in a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t position. North Korea wins either way.