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Kim's condolence message seen as diplomatic courtesy, not signal of shift in his tough stance

All Headlines 17:04 October 31, 2019

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's surprise condolence message over the death of South Korean President Moon Jae-in's mother is considered diplomatic courtesy, not something that signals any meaningful shift in Pyongyang's tough stance toward Seoul, experts said Thursday.

Kim sent the message through the truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday afternoon, less than a day after Moon's mother, Kang Han-ok, passed away at the age of 92. He expressed his "deep condolence" over her death, according to the presidential office.

Few expected that Kim would send such a message given the Koreas' chilled relations as of late. The Seoul government did not officially inform North Korea of her death.

Experts said that the surprise move should be interpreted in the context of the friendship the two leaders built through three summits last year, and warned against reading too much into it, saying it might not indicate a meaningful change in Pyongyang's future attitude toward Seoul.

"North Korea has apparently made clear its inter-Korean policy, which is to go tough on it until any progress is achieved in its denuclearization talks with the U.S.," Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.

"It appears to be excessive to interpret Kim's condolence message as signaling a possible shift in its tough stance on South Korea. It should be regarded as part of diplomatic courtesy separate from politics and other inter-Korean issues," he added.

Inter-Korean relations improved significantly last year buoyed by summit talks Moon and Kim, held three times in April, May and September. Moon traveled to Pyongyang for the September summit and invited Kim to visit South Korea, though that visit did not materialize.

Since the breakdown of the summit between North Korean leader Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in February, however, the cross-border ties have remained at a standstill. Pyongyang often complains that Seoul is not active enough to move their relations forward mindful of global sanctions imposed against it.

In a recent setback and apparent indication of Pyongyang's frustration with the lack of progress in cross-border projects due to global sanctions, North Korea last week asked South Korea to remove its facilities built for a long-suspended joint tour program to Mount Kumgang on its east coast, saying that it will build its own international tourism zone there.

The decision is a follow up on North Korean leader Kim's directive to destruct all "unpleasant-looking" South Korean facilities there. On Monday, the South offered to hold working-level talks about the issue, but the North turned the proposal down the following day.

Some hoped that Kim's condolence message could serve as a rare chance to create a favorable mood in relations between the two Koreas, given that the North has a history of using funerals of major figures as a means to convey reconciliatory messages.

When former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the architect of the sunshine policy of engaging North Korea, died in 2009, then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sent a condolence message to the bereaved family the next day and sent a delegation of special envoys to the funeral.

For the death of Lee Hee-ho, the wife of late President Kim Dae-jung in June this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, deliver a condolence message and flowers to the South. That gesture led to eased tensions and resulted in the surprise brief meeting between their leaders at Panmunjom along with U.S. President Donald Trump.

"The fact that Chairman Kim delivered the message in his name despite South Korea not officially informing the North of her death appears to indicate that he is still interested in inter-Korean relations," Yang Moo-jin, a top North Korea expert at the University of North Korean Studies, said.

"It could be seen as a message sent to consol the president but, as evidenced in many historical cases, condolence messages and paying tribute have contributed to improvement in relations between states. I hope that Kim's latest action could bode well for inter-Korean ties going forward."

Kim's condolence message seen as diplomatic courtesy, not signal of shift in his tough stance - 1

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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