By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's remarks on South Korea during a key party meeting appear to have passed the ball into Seoul's court by attaching challenging conditions that portend cloudy prospects for any change in the currently chilled cross-border relations, experts said Saturday.
During the fourth-day session at the eighth congress of the ruling Workers' Party currently under way in Pyongyang, Kim assessed the current state of inter-Korean relations as being as catastrophic as they were before the historic summit talks at Panmunjom in April 2018.
He still left room for improvement in relations with the South, saying inter-Korean relations could return "at any time" to being as they were three years ago when a reconciliatory mood was created, depending on South Korea's attitude.
Experts, however, said that the North has laid out conditions that Seoul will find hard to swallow, such as the suspension of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington. The North also warned the South not to take issue with any military provocations in the future.
"Overall, the North sent a message that inter-Korean relations could be restored depending on the attitude of the South Korean authorities, but this appears to be their way of building up justification," Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said.
"I think they do not have great expectations for inter-Korean relations as they proposed additional conditions that are not easy for us to accept," he added.
Inter-Korean relations have not progressed much since the no-deal summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019.
Tensions further escalated last year, as North Korea blew up an inter-Korean joint liaison office in anger over anti-Pyongyang leafleting in June and killed a South Korean fisheries official drifting near its western sea border in September.
North Korea has not responded to Seoul's offers for talks and even provision of aid to help with its ongoing antivirus campaign. It has recently stepped up self-reliance, calling on its citizens not to expect any outside help in overcoming challenges.
In what appears to be a conciliatory gesture, Kim wished South Korea a fast recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in October. He also expressed hope that the day will soon come for the two Koreas to "join hands" after the current health crisis is over.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the North appears to have sent a toned-down message to the South, but things could change for the worse depending on how South Korea deals with such sensitive issues as whether to delay or suspend its upcoming joint military exercise with the U.S. in March.
"The key task is how South Korea deals with the incoming U.S. administration in regards to the military drills," he added.
Another expert pointed out that the North is "employing a strategy of gaining leverage in future negotiations by raising the conditions for the U.S. and South to the maximum."
"The North appears to have raised the 'fundamental issue' of South Korea-U.S. joint military drills and the introduction of advanced weapons to bring up a military issue that is difficult for South Korea to accept and to send a message to the U.S.," Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
The North has also showed a negative response to South Korea's calls for cooperation in cross-border projects such as warding off the coronavirus or allowing individual tourism, accusing Seoul of pretending to take interest in such "nonessential issues."
The North reaffirmed that it will build a modern tourist area in the Mount Kumgang region on the country's eastern coast in its "own way," in an apparent rejection of Seoul's calls for consultations on resuming a long-suspended tour program as an inter-Korean cooperative project.
The tour program was halted in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead near the mountain resort for allegedly trespassing in an off-limits area.
"Our government needs to come up with clear answers to the fundamental issues that North Korea is demanding in order to restore inter-Korean relations in the remaining term," Lim said. "This is a very challenging task as these fundamental issues can lead to extreme escalation of South Korea-U.S. tension and tensions within South Korea."
South Korea's unification ministry issued a comment in the name of its spokesperson and reiterated its commitment to implementing inter-Korean agreements and hoping for the two Koreas to start anew at an early date to move toward peace and prosperity based on mutual trust and respect.
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