North Korea - South Korea

Chronology from May 2019 to Aug 2019

: DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) holds a rare second session. Belying expectations in Seoul of fresh policy announcements (see Aug. 26), this is mainly devoted to constitutional changes further cementing Kim Jong Un’s position as chief of the executive branch, as well as head of everything else.

: MOU admits that while “it would be great to hold joint events”, South Korea will mark the first anniversary on Sept. 19 of the Pyongyang inter-Korean summit without North Korea’s participation. Nor has the North been notified of the South’s planned events.

: MOU says Pyongyang has not replied to its offer to return the body of a presumed North Korean, found in the Imjin river at Paju near the DMZ in Aug. 14.

: Ahead of the DPRK parliament’s rare second session this year, MOU calls that “a good opportunity for it to announce inside and out its policy direction or an evaluation on the businesses it has carried out.” This turns out to be quite mistaken (see Aug. 29).

: North Korea test-fires what the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) presume to be two more SRBMs, this time from Sondok, south of Hamhung on the east coast. They travel some 235 miles, in the seventh such test in less than a month. A day later, DPRK media report this as being a “newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher” system (MRLS), once again under Kim Jong Un’s personal guidance.

: MOU says it still hopes to send 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea via the UN World Food Programme (WFP) by end-September, despite Pyongyang’s reported refusal to accept aid from the South.

: Quoting an unnamed official, Yonhap says South Korea is mulling whether to invite North Korea to the 8th vice-minister level Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), to be held on Sept. 4-6. In the event it decides not to.

: KCNA weighs in on the US-ROK negotiations over cost-sharing for USFK. It attacks Washington as “greedy” and “gangster-like,” and also Seoul for being “servile.”

: Rodong Sinmun lambastes the joint US-ROK exercises as “an open hostility to and unpardonable military provocation against the DPRK” and “a saber-rattling for making a preemptive attack on the DPRK from A to Z.”

: Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul restates the Moon administration’s commitment to building a ‘peace economy’ on the peninsula, despite Pyongyang scorning this notion as “remarks that make the boiled head of a cow provoke a side-splitting laughter.”

: DPRK media insult Park Jie-won, a veteran ROK politician heavily involved in the late Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy, as “a tramp and dirty man” who “wagged his ill-smelling tongue.” Park had criticized the North’s Aug. 16 missile launch as (inter alia) irreverent to the memory of the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai conglomerate and a major funder of ‘Sunshine,’ who was born near Tongchon.

: North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) reacts to Moon’s Aug. 15 speech with derision and insults. Calling “the south Korean chief executive” “an impudent guy rare to be found,” the CPRC says: “[W]e have nothing to talk any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again.”

: Calling Pyongyang’s insults against President Moon (see above) “a rude act” that “crossed the line”, MOU says, rather mildly: “We express deep regret over North Korea’s slander made one day after Liberation Day, the nation’s biggest celebratory day.”

: North Korea launches two SRBMs from Tongchon in Kangwon province, the closest site yet this year to the DMZ and South Korea. Once again Kim Jong Un presides; As KCNA puts it, “Juche shells were fired in the presence of the Supreme Leader.”

: In a speech on Liberation Day (from Japan in 1945: a public holiday in both Koreas), President Moon renews his call to North Korea to build shared prosperity on the peninsula. But he also refers to “worrying actions,” and adds: “If there is dissatisfaction, it too should be raised and discussed at the negotiating table.

: Yonhap cites an unnamed “government source” as confirming that the two Koreas’ spy chiefs met secretly in April. National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Suh Hoon met Jang Kum Chol, who Seoul says replaced Kim Yong Chol as head of the WPK United Front Department (UFD) after the failure of the second US-DPRK summit.

: Seoul police reveal that the bodies of a North Korean defector mother and son were found in their apartment on July 31. They may have starved to death two months earlier. This prompts an outpouring of concern as to how no safety net prevented such a tragedy.

: Citing a leaked text of the latest report of the UN Panel of Experts set up to monitor implementation of sanctions on the DPRK, AP reports that the ROK was the main victim (ten cases) of 35 DPRK cyberattacks, thought to have netted Pyongyang up to $2 billion in total. (The report is officially published on Sept. 5; see section 57, page 26.)

: Refuting Pyongyang’s criticisms of the US-ROK exercise, MOU says this is “not a field training aimed at the North, but a joint command post drill intended to prepare for the transfer of wartime operational control (from Washington to Seoul) … It is not a violation of North-South military agreements.” The North’s comments do “not help advance inter-Korean relations at all.”

: A director general at the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs mocks and insults “the south Korean authorities” for changing the name of US-ROK joint exercises, using startlingly undiplomatic language: “Shit, though hard and dry, still stinks even if it is wrapped in a flowered cloth.”

: Radio Free Asia (RFA) again claims North Korea is selling products pilfered from South Korean companies that invested in Kaesong, citing a large batch of rice cookers sent to China. (See also May 24.)

: US-ROK joint military exercises commence. Scaled down and renamed from the former Ulchi Freedom Guardian summer maneuvers (cancelled in 2018), these comprise four days of “crisis management staff training” (Aug. 5-8), followed by a 10-day “Combined Command Post Training” (Aug. 11-20).” Both are largely computer simulations, rather than mobilization of actual troops and equipment.

: As ROK relations with Japan deteriorate after Tokyo imposes trade sanctions, President Moon tells his Cabinet that “the Korean economy can catch up with Japan’s quickly if a peace economy is achieved on the peninsula through inter-Korean economic cooperation.”

:   MOU says that on July 24 South Korea proposed working-level talks with the North about forming unified teams for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in four sports, as agreed in February. Its spokesman adds that “discussions are under way”, but inter-Korean sports exchanges “have shown little progress due to the North’s passive attitude.” Separately, the ministry says that the North has rejected a proposal by a South Korean civic group to hold a joint Liberation Day event on Aug. 15, to mark the end of Japanese occupation in 1945.

: (South) Korea Football Association (KFA) says its Northern counterpart has told the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) it will host an inter-Korean soccer match in  Pyongyang on Oct. 15.

: Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier crosses the DMZ by swimming in the Imjin river near Paju to defect to South Korea.

: Seoul announces that the third and last new hiking trail along the southern side of the DMZ, starting from Paju and including a demolished guardpost, will open on Aug. 10.)

: ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) report that the DPRK has launched two SRBMs, seemingly of a new type, from a presumed mobile launcher on Hodo Peninsula near Wonsan. They flew for some 690 and 430 km. Seoul expresses “strong concerns.”

: MOU reveals that North Korea is refusing to accept the South’s offer (made via the UN WFP) of 50,000 tons of rice, citing upcoming joint US-ROK military exercises.

: FFNK does it again (see June 25). The defector activist group reveals that on July 20 it launched 20 balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets, 2,000 dollar bills, 1,000 USB drives and 500 booklets across the DMZ from Yeoncheon, north of Seoul.

: Opening what Yonhap calls “an exposition on the seas around North Korea,”  Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul calls for progress in stalled inter-Korean maritime cooperation, such as a joint fishing area: “If we can seize this opportunity and connect the seas of the South and North, the destiny of the Korean Peninsula will dramatically change.”

: Apologizing again for the Samcheok boat incident, ROK Defense Minister Jeong says he has asked President Moon to decide whether to fire him. He keeps his job.

: MOU rebuffs as “absolutely not true” a claim by the Chosun Ilbo that government support for civic groups’ projects to help Northern defectors’ settlement has been halved. On the contrary, it “has been rather steadily on the rise”: from 383 million won ($324,300) in 2015 to 430 million won in 2017, 500 million won in 2018 and 522 million won in 2019.

: MOU says North Korea has not responded to an invitation to participate in the world’s largest swimming event: the biennial International Swimming Federation (FINA, in French), this year hosted by Gwangju and Yeosu cities in southwestern South Korea, which runs July 12-28.

: More than a month after Seoul agreed to let its investors visit the KIC (see May 17, above), MOU says that “North Korea is a little passive on this in the current situation.” Pressed further, the ministry clarifies that Pyongyang has not replied at all.

: President Moon’s approval rating reaches 52.4%, a seven-month high.

: Ministry of National Defense (MND) says it has sacked the commander of the ROK Army’s 8th Corps, referred two other senior military commanders to a disciplinary committee, and issued a warning to the JCS Chairman over the Samcheok boat incident.

: President Moon tells his Cabinet that the Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom on June 30 was a “de facto declaration of an end to hostile relations and the beginning of a full-fledged peace era,” even though no new accord was signed.

: Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un meet for the first time since September 2018, at Panmunjom. They shake hands and speak briefly as Moon escorts Donald Trump to his slightly longer (50 minutes) third meeting with Kim, in which Moon does not participate.

: In the same group interview, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul suggests that the KIC and the Mount Kumgang resort could be reopened even before sanctions relief, so as to advance denuclearization.

: In a joint written interview with Yonhap and six foreign news agencies, Moon Jae-in anticipates the two Koreas exchanging military information and observing each other’s exercises – if existing confidence-building accords are fully implemented.

: Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK), a group of defectors and their supporters, says it marked the 69th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War by launching 20 propaganda balloons across the DMZ from Incheon, west of Seoul.

:   ROK Coast Guard and Navy see off a small DPRK fishing boat that had entered Southern waters northeast of Dokdo. The North Korean Navy had requested its rescue via a military hotline, but the crew insisted their engine was working.

: ROK Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologizes, after the embarrassing truth emerges of military failure and cover-up. The small DPRK boat (see above) had neither drifted South nor been apprehended at sea. Actually it crossed the maritime border, spent three days in Southern waters, then entered and tied up in the South’s Samcheok port, where its crew hailed a passing civilian – all of this entirely undetected and unchallenged.

: In a wide-ranging interview, Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho says: “I think we need to find an exquisite procedure (sic) with regard to resumption of the Kaesong complex and Mount Kumgang tours in the process of denuclearization.”

: MOU says two of the four DPRK boat people, who wanted to go home, were returned via Panmunjom today. The other two expressed a wish to defect. In further details, it is now revealed that the tiny (1.8 ton) wooden boat was first spotted by a civilian, “quite close to a seawall” near the ROK port of Samcheok. But it is still claimed to have been adrift.

: Yonhap says, the Blue House “publicly tone[s] down its expectations for an early inter-Korean summit.” With China’s Xi Jinping now headed for Pyongyang, this is an admission that President Moon’s professed hopes last week (see June 12) are unrealistic.

: Seoul’s military vows to tighten vigilance, amid criticism that a DPRK fishing boat had entered ROK waters undetected (see June 15). Still claiming the vessel was “found adrift”, the JCS says that while overall coastal and maritime defense operations had proceeded “normally”, its radar operation system has “elements that need to be complemented.”

: DPRK media use the 19th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit (which is not being celebrated jointly) to praise that event. They also laud 2018’s Kim-Moon summits as “milestones for peace, prosperity and unification.”

: Yonhap reports that a North Korean fishing boat with four crew was “found adrift in South Korean waters off the east coast,” having “drifted [South] due to an engine problem”. This account later turns out to be falsified. See also June 17, 18 and 20 below.

: DPRK website Uriminzokkiri denounces Ulchi Taegeuk – the ROK’s new scaled-down civilian-military drill, held from May 27-30 – as “a provocative military exercise explicitly targeting us as the main enemy.”

: Suh Ho, who in May replaced Chun Hae-sung as vice unification minister, pays his first visit to the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong (he is its co-head ex officio). He meets ROK staff there, but not his DPRK counterpart Jon Jong Su, since Pyongyang once again cancels the supposedly weekly meeting of co-heads; none has been held since February.

: At Panmunjom, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong delivers a wreath and letter of condolence from the DPRK leader over the death of Kim Dae-jung’s widow, Lee Hee-ho, who died on June 10 aged 96. There is no message for Moon Jae-in. DPRK media publicize all this, which some in Seoul see as encouraging.

: Speaking in Oslo, President Moon says: “I think it’s desirable (for me) to meet Chairman Kim Jong Un, if possible” before US President Donald Trump visits Seoul at the end of June. He adds: “I am calling for an early meeting between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”

: Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) report that the ROK Navy towed a DPRK fishing boat, found drifting with engine trouble in Southern waters in the East Sea, back into Northern waters, having ascertained that all six crew wished to go home. Pyongyang used the inter-Korean military hotline to request their rescue and repatriation.

: Choson Sinbo, a newspaper published by pro-DPRK Koreans in Japan, urges Seoul to “make a courageous decision to take practical action, not just words, in tackling the current stalemate in lockstep with North Korean compatriots.” If it does this, “there will be an answer from the North.”

: Minju Joson, daily paper of the DPRK Cabinet, calls the recent meeting in Seoul between ROK Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan a “clear manifestation of the ambition [to] militarily crush” North Korea.

: ROK sends the $8 million it pledged for aid to the DPRK (see May 17) to two UN agencies. WFP receives $4.5 million and UNICEF $3.5 million.

: Speaking in Helsinki at the start of a visit to three Nordic nations, President Moon sounds upbeat: “I believe that we will be able to resume ….dialogue between the two Koreas and between the US and North Korea in the near future.”

: MOU says Pyongyang has not replied to its offer to jointly fight African swine fever. Nor has it even officially informed Seoul of its new outbreak, despite an inter-Korean agreement in November to share information on contagious diseases.

: A propos an outbreak of highly contagious African swine fever in the northern DPRK, MOU says: “We will soon launch discussions with North Korea through the joint liaison office.”

: Yonhap quotes DPRK Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U as reaffirming, in a Chinese TV interview (date and channel unspecified), the North’s readiness to form a joint team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: “We have a willingness to do (it), holding hands with South Korea.” That would need planning; but Pyongyang is not replying to Seoul’s messages.

: The DPRK website Uriminzokkiri denounces South Korea’s plan to buy SM-2 Block IIIB ship-to-air missiles and related equipment from the US, adding: “There is actually no end if we are to list all the sneaky acts done by the south Korean military that destroy the peace mood on the peninsula and heighten tensions.”

: Citing “multiple” ROK government sources, the conservative Seoul daily Dong-A Ilbo claims that in January Seoul offered rice and other aid for Pyongyang to reopen the KIC and Mount Kumgang tourist resort. The North refused, demanding cash instead – which would breach UN sanctions. The South then offered twice as much rice (amount unspecified), but was again rebuffed. MOU denies this story, calling it “not true at all.”

: In apparent reaction to the ROK’s latest offer of aid (see May 17), though without citing that specifically, two second-tier DPRK websites, Tongil Sinbo and DPRK Today, reiterate Pyongyang’s position (see May 12) that humanitarian issues are “non-core and secondary.” They accuse Seoul of wanting to “show off … and manipulate public opinion rather than improving inter-Korean relations.”

: Rebutting a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) that North Korea has sold off equipment belonging to South Korean companies at the KIC, Yonhap quotes an unnamed official of one such investor as saying that ROK officials who visited Kaesong last year to set up the inter-Korean liaison office there found factory buildings locked and sealed. (But see also Aug. 9, below.)

: South Korea submits on the deadline its roster alone for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Women’s Hockey Series Finals in Ireland: a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In February the two Koreas agreed to field joint teams in qualifiers for women’s field hockey, women’s basketball, judo and rowing. Despite this, North Korea has ignored all the South’s requests to arrange joint training and other practicalities.

: Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul says “discussions are under way” with North Korea for Southern investors in the KIC to visit Kaesong (see May 17). He gives no details. As of mid-September no such visit has yet taken place. (See also July 4.)

: North Korean website Uriminzokkiri criticizes South Korea for its recent bilateral working group talks with the US. Falsely calling that meeting “secret,” it says this proves that Seoul has “yet to break away from a policy of dependence on foreign forces.”

: MOU announces two decisions. South Korea is to donate $8 million via UN agencies for projects supporting nutrition and health of children and pregnant women in North Korea. It will also, at the ninth time of asking, allow Southern companies invested at Kaesong to visit the shuttered KIC, to check on the condition of their equipment and property there….

: MOU rebuffs any suggestion that falling market prices for rice in North Korea mean that its food situation is not so serious after all, saying “We recognize the assessment compiled by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as official and objective indicators.” The two UN bodies’ latest report, published on May 3, claims that (in WFP’s own headline) “After worst harvest in ten years, 10 million people in DPRK face imminent food shortages.”

: Radio Pyongyang says South Korea has no right to criticize what it calls a “normal … strike drill” (see May 4). This launch “was not a violation of a promise as it was neither … an intermediate range missile nor an intercontinental ballistic missile.” It calls Seoul’s (actually rather mild) remonstrations “a shameless complaint from the ones who lost the right to talk … by recklessly infringing upon the North-South military agreement, sticking to secret hostile acts with the US.”

: MND spokesperson says that Seoul “will continue to beef up [its missile defense] capabilities aimed at effectively fending off threats from all directions.” She also reveals that military communication channels with the North are operating normally. Another anonymous ROKG source confirms to Yonhap that the inter-Korean military hotlines are in use twice a day: “But exchanges of opinions via those hotlines on how to implement the inter-Korean military pact have come to a halt, which I believe will be temporary.”

: Poll commissioned by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a state think-tank in Seoul, finds that for the first time since polling began in 2016 more than half of South Koreans (51.4 percent) say their government should pursue dialogue with North Korea. Yet although those regarding the North as a trustworthy partner rose from 8.8 percent in 2017 to 33.5 percent now, a larger proportion (39.2 percent) still distrust the Kim regime.

: Yonhap quotes an unnamed military official as saying the ROK is still not in a position to confirm whether what the DPRK fired on May 9 were ballistic missiles, as almost all other expert sources – including the Pentagon – are claiming.

: Korean-language DPRK propaganda website Meari (Echo) criticizes the South’s emphasis on aiding the North: “It would be a deception of the public sentiment … to make a fuss as if a few humanitarian projects, which are far from the demands of the nation, would lead to big progress in inter-Korean relations … while putting fundamental issues … on the back burner.” It urges Seoul to focus on implementing summit agreements instead.

: DPRK Today, a China-based North Korean website, urges South Korea to reopen the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), abruptly shut by then-President Park Geun-hye in 2016. It claims that this “is not an issue that needs Washington’s approval. The South is giving an excuse for foreign forces to intervene in cooperative projects.”

: Won Hyung-joon, a South Korean violinist and orchestra director, and Kim Song Mi, a China-based North Korean soprano, give a joint concert in Shanghai. Won is a long-time advocate of inter-Korean musical cooperation; this was his individual initiative. The duo had been due to perform together in Jeju last December, but that event was cancelled.

: MOU deputy spokesperson Lee Eugene insists: “There is no change in [the Moon administration’s] position that it is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance to the North from a humanitarian and compatriots’ perspective.”

: Regarding potential ROK food aid to the DPRK in the light of the latter’s recent missile tests, MOU deputy spokesperson insists: “There is no change in [the Moon administration’s] position that it is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance to the North from a humanitarian and compatriots’ perspective.” However, “the government plans to sufficiently collect opinions from the public in the process.” (See also May 12.)

: North Korea launches two apparent SRBMs from Kusong-ri, north of Pyongyang. Again Kim Jong Un is present. The Blue House calls this “very worrisome” and unhelpful for efforts to reduce tensions.

: Interviewed by KBS hours after Pyongyang’s latest missile launch, President Moon says: “I’d like to warn North Korea that if such behavior … is repeated, it could make the current dialogue and negotiation phase difficult.”

: Effectively confirming that its test moratorium is over, the DPRK launches two more apparent SRBMs from Kusong-ri, north of Pyongyang. Again Kim Jong Un is present. The Blue House calls this “very worrisome” and unhelpful for efforts to reduce tensions.

: Interviewed by the Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS) just after Pyongyang’s latest missile launch, President Moon says: “I’d like to warn North Korea that if such behavior … is repeated, it could make the current dialogue and negotiation phase difficult.”

: Data from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) show that inter-Korean contacts – measured by permissions the ministry grants to South Koreans to go North – are falling. From 6,689 in 2018 (full year), the number declined to 617 in 2019 so far.

: Yonhap, the ROK’s quasi-official news agency, reports that the UN Command (UNC) has approved partial opening of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, the de facto inter-Korean border) for two hiking trails, in Cheorwon and Paju. A third “peace trail,” in Goseong on the east coast, was opened on April 27 to mark the anniversary of 2018’s Panmunjom Summit. (All this is on the South’s side of the border; there is no North Korean involvement.)

: Exactly one month after his confirmation as the new ROK Unification Minister (MOU), Kim Yeon-chul makes his first visit to North Korea – if only as far as the joint liaison office at Kaesong. Briefly meeting DPRK officials stationed there, he exchanges pleasantries but does not discuss any substantive issues, such as missiles or food aid.

: Blue House releases an English text of “The Greatness of the Ordinary”: a long op-ed by President Moon for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, which publishes it on May 9.

: Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae, South Korea’s presidential office) releases an English text of “The Greatness of the Ordinary”: a long op-ed by President Moon Jae-in for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, which publishes it on May 9. With unfortunate timing, this includes a claim that “the sounds of gunfire have disappeared in the air, on the sea and on the ground around the Korean Peninsula.”

: Ending a 17-month moratorium on such testing, North Korea fires a volley of projectiles into the East Sea from Hodo-ri, near Wonsan. Kim Jong Un presides. After some initial confusion in Seoul, observers conclude that these involved two types of large-caliber multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and a new short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

: Ending a 17-month moratorium on such testing, North Korea fires a volley of projectiles into the East Sea from Hodo-ri, near Wonsan. Kim Jong Un presides. After some initial confusion in Seoul, observers conclude that these involved two types of large-caliber multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and a new short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

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