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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 13)

All News 06:59 October 13, 2020

Contradictory message
: Kim Jong-un flexes muscle, extends olive branch

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attempted to flex his country's military muscle by showcasing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party early Saturday morning.

On the other hand, he also raised expectations for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula by extending an olive branch to the South. Even using the expression "beloved Southern compatriots," he revealed hope that South and North Korea will be able to join hands someday after recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

Kim stopped short of naming the United States but made it clear that the North will continue to strengthen its self-reliant efforts to deter war unless the U.S. changes its attitude toward Pyongyang. He also indicated a willingness to embark on efforts to mend soured relations between Seoul and Pyongyang should COVID-19 show signs of abating.

Instead of taking tough steps, by test-firing an ICBM for instance, the North this time adopted a moderate stance by revealing the weapons, regarded to be much more powerful than anything else in the North's arsenal. Pyongyang seems to have taken a cautious approach toward Washington with less than a month to go before the U.S. presidential election, refraining from employing provocative steps at a delicate time when nobody can precisely predict who will become the next U.S. president.

Kim tried to assuage possible complaints from the North Korean people by spending more than one third of his speech encouraging them for their efforts to overcome the difficulties from international sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and flood disasters. He even shed tears while confessing his failure to improve the people's livelihoods despite their strenuous support.

In the meantime, Kim also tried to flaunt the North's military strength. The new ICBM is allegedly liquid-fueled, and believed to be a derivative of the Hwasong-15 that was tested in 2017; while the SLBM was also a sophisticated Pukguksong-4 type. They are believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads that can reach even the mainland U.S. including major cities in the east such as New York and Washington, D.C.

Though Kim described the weapons as self-defensive, they surely pose a threat to America. U.S. experts reacted with dismay over the North's focus on the nuclear and other strategic weapons, assessing it has taken a path toward becoming a nuclear power. Skepticism is growing that the U.S. only gave the North enough time to develop more nuclear weapons despite the summits between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

And yet we pay attention to Kim's somewhat conciliatory message toward the South. It is not certain whether his remarks came in response to President Moon Jae-in's repeated proposal to declare an end to the Korean War that was halted in 1953 with an armistice. The message could help boost inter-Korean relations which have been stalled since the North's destruction of a liaison office in Gaeseong and the shooting death of a South Korean fisheries official by North Korean military personnel.

But it is still premature to expect a breakthrough in bilateral ties soon. Pyongyang should positively react to diverse proposals from the South including a joint investigation into the shooting incident. Seoul also needs to maintain a cautious attitude without reading too much into Kim's words.

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