Seoul Wary of N.Korean Overtures

Seoul is wary in the face of North Korea's repeated overtures over the past week, with several officials voicing suspicion of a hidden agenda. Some believe North Korea's gestures are perfunctory or aimed at justifying a provocation against South Korea in the weeks ahead to distract attention from the execution late last year of former eminence grise Jang Song-taek.

◆ Peace Gestures

In an editorial on Monday, North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun daily called for an "immediate end" to derogatory comments from both sides, saying they only "heighten tensions." The North also called for a halt to joint U.S.-South Korean military drills scheduled for late February.

When South Korea declined, Pyongyang promised to take "substantial steps" first to demonstrate its resolve to realize this "crucial proposal."

President Park Geun-hye on Monday nonetheless ordered the military to remain alert, but North Korea merely repeated the proposal. Meanwhile, North Korean special forces have been conducting infiltration drills near border areas.

American missionary Kenneth Bae (right) leaves after speaking to reporters at a hospital in Pyongyang on Monday. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release and denied he had been maltreated. /AP-Newsis American missionary Kenneth Bae (right) leaves after speaking to reporters at a hospital in Pyongyang on Monday. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release and denied he had been maltreated. /AP-Newsis

◆ Fear of Isolation

Experts say North Korea's behavior reflects instability after the execution of Jang. While attempting to give the impression of stability, the regime is in turmoil due to a purge that followed Jang’s ouster.

The North has also found itself increasingly isolated diplomatically as its ties with China weakened while its moribund economy continued to sputter, pundits say. A hardline stance against South Korea would only exacerbate its problems.

China's staging of a massive military drill near the border with North Korea may also have prodded Pyongyang to extend an olive branch.

One source said, "It appears that North Korea is trying to buy time to contain internal unrest with these overtures." Experts say North Korea's recent focus on the loyalty of former partisan guerillas who fought against Japanese occupying forces from 1910 to 1945 highlights Pyongyang's attempts to quell internal unrest.

◆ Ulterior Motives

But there are concerns here that North Korea’s peace gestures are merely aimed at justifying a military provocation in February or March if they predictably fall flat. In 2010, just before it sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, North Korea also made overtures to the South. In November 2010, North Korea proposed a resumption of family reunions, only to shell Yeonpyeong Island.

In his New Year's address last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for improved inter-Korean relations but went ahead with a third nuclear test shortly afterwards.

Park Hyung-joong at the Korea Institute for National Unification said the peace gestures appear aimed at "softening" South Korea's vigilance toward a potential provocation.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 21, 2014 12:56 KST