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Kim's letter a positive sign, but immediate breakthrough in chilled relations unlikely: experts

All News 19:50 March 05, 2020

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week provided a positive sign for chilled inter-Korean relations but it remains to be seen whether his reconciliatory gesture will lead to any meaningful breakthrough, experts said Thursday.

Moon's office Cheong Wa Dae said earlier Thursday that Kim sent a personal letter to Moon the previous day to express his support for South Korea's fight against the new coronavirus. In return, Moon sent a letter to Kim to thank him for his support, Cheong Wa Dae added.

Kim's letter came as a surprise in that it came just one day after Kim Yo-jong, his sister and closest aide, issued a harshly worded statement criticizing the presidential office for complaining about the North's latest firings of short-range missiles.

Though she did not criticize Moon directly, her statement clouded prospects for an improvement in inter-Korean relations that have been stalled since the no-deal summit between her brother and U.S. President Donald Trump in February last year.

Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said that Kim's letter might not be enough to end the current stalemate overnight but it could serve as a "lubricant" in helping break the logjam in cross-border relations down the road.

"It is not easy to find solutions to the currently stalemated inter-Korean relations but Kim's letter seems to be signaling that the North is leaving some room (for the two Koreas) to wriggle around," the professor said. "Though it might not lead to a drastic change in inter-Korean relations, the letter could serve as a lubricant."

Inter-Korean exchanges have been at a standstill as North Korea remains unresponsive to South Korea's offers for talks and cooperation, including its push for individual trips to the North and joint efforts to fight the coronavirus that has been quickly spreading in the South.

North Korea has not reported any virus infection but it has swiftly tightened its border with China and toughened quarantine procedures to keep the virus at bay.

Despite North Korea's repeated claims of no virus infection, Seoul's spy agency said that there appears to be around 7,000 people quarantined for showing suspected symptoms in the North. Some say that the North might be in desperate need of help to contain what they say is fast spreading of the virus on its soil.

Tight border controls and beefed-up quarantine appear to be hampering leader Kim's pet project to develop a world-class tourism industry as part of efforts to lure foreign travelers and build a self-reliant economy free from outside help.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, cautiously raised the possibility that the North might be in dire situation due to the coronavirus and could seek cooperation with South Korea in the near future.

"Though South Korea is currently struggling with the spread of the new coronavirus itself, Seoul has demonstrated to the world its advanced health and medical technology and systems," he said.

"If the Seoul government succeeds in containing the spread of the virus in the near future, North Korea could seek cooperation from the South in health and medical areas," he added.

He also expected that the North could be responsive to Seoul's individual tour initiative as part of efforts to counter a sharp decline in the number of visitors from China after the coronavirus fears abate.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, agreed that Kim's personal letter amounts to an encouraging sign in chilled inter-Korean relations but cautioned that it is too early to expect any immediate breakthrough.

"It is still important to remind ourselves of what the North Korean leader said during late last year's party meeting. He vowed to overcome challenges without external help and maintained his stance to sideline South Korea in the process," he said. "It remains to be seen whether Kim would change course in such a short period of time."


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