North Korea - South Korea

Chronology from Jan 2020 to May 2020

: Citing coronavirus concerns and chilly relations, MOU says South Korea will mark next month’s 20th anniversary of the first North-South summit on its own, without North Korea. This is not new; there has been no joint celebration since 2009.

: MOU says South Korea will give $4.9 million over five years to a project by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The goal is “improving North Korean people’s understanding of international principles on statistics and usability of data as part of efforts to enhance the country’s sustainable development capacity.”

: MOU says it wants to revise the South-North Exchange and Cooperation Law, enacted in 1990, to make cooperation easier. Ideas include allowing municipalities to have their own dealings with the North, and loosening reporting and permission rules for a range of inter-Korean contacts.

: ROK Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announces a year-long comprehensive survey, the first, of the DMZ; presumably on the Southern side only, below the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). A 55-person panel will look for archaeological relics, flora, and fauna at 40 sites. No North Korean involvement is mentioned.

: Kim reappears. KCNA reports that he guided “the Fourth Enlarged Meeting of the Seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)” —presumably a day earlier, on May 23. Topics discussed included “new policies for further increasing … nuclear war deterrence.”

: With KJU unseen for three weeks since his re-emergence on May Day, MOU says: “The relevant authorities are keeping a close watch”—while noting that such absences are not unusual.

: Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul says the May 24 measures will remain in force.

: Yonhap reports that MOU has launched a “Fake News Response” page on its website, the first ROK ministry to do so, a result of worries that rumor and speculation “could cause confusion and instability in society and financial markets.” Two early targets are YouTube videos, claiming that facemasks are abundant in North Korea though scarce in the South, and that a Southern factory is sending the North a million masks a day.

: Approaching the tenth anniversary of the “May 24 measures”—a ban on most North-South trade imposed by Seoul in 2010, in reprisal for the sinking of the Cheonan that March—MOU says these have “virtually lost … effect” and pose no obstacle to inter-Korean exchanges. It reiterates this next day, claiming past administrations had eroded the sanctions through exemptions; but declines comment on whether they might be lifted entirely.

: MOU says it expects North Korea to face an overall grain shortage of 860,000 tons this year.

: MND denies and deplores media claims that protests by Pyongyang prompted cancellation of a biannual inter-service maritime live fire drill, due to be held this week off Uljin on the east coast. The ministry insists that adverse weather was the real reason.

: ROK JCS says it now has “decisive” evidence (which it does not reveal) that May 3 cross-border firing by the DPRK was accidental.

: Yonhap reports that MOU’s latest annual who’s who in North Korea lists, among other changes, a new chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the DPRK’s military intelligence agency. Rim Kwang Il, an army general, replaced Jang Kil Song last December. MOU notes high turnover rates during the past year: almost 80% for the WPK Politburo, and 82% for the State Affairs Commission (SAC).

: Blue House spokesman insists it is too early to rule out a fresh inter-Korean summit this year, even though “truly, it seems difficult at the moment.”

: In a “special address” on the third anniversary of his inauguration, President Moon suggests quarantine cooperation as a way to revive inter-Korean relations, as this would not breach international sanctions. He admits that “North Korea is not responding”—but blames this on “difficulties” due to COVID-19.

: Maj. Gen. Kim Do-gyun, MND’s point man on inter-Korean affairs, is promoted to three stars – and taken off the case. He becomes chief of the Capital Defense Command. The report does not state who will replace him on the North Korea beat at MND.

: US-led United Nations Command (UNC) says it is conducting “a full investigation” into May 3 border shooting incident. It was reportedly unable to enter the Northern side of the DMZ. Pyongyang has still offered no explanation, much less apology.

: South Korea’s Minister of Unification (MOU) visits the DMZ. Kim Yeon-chul’s trip to Panmunjom is to assess preparations for the planned resumption of tourism, suspended since last year’s outbreak of African swine fever.

: ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) says Pyongyang has not yet offered any explanation for yesterday’s gunfire incident at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

: Yonhap says that the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), an ROK state think-tank, is proposing that South Korea sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with North Korea, “to accelerate reform … and to help it integrate into the international market.” (KIEP’s homepage lists a report with this date, but in fact published last December—so it is unclear what exactly is new here.)

: South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) report that at about 0741 Northern gunfire struck a guardpost at Cheorwon in the central part of the peninsula, leaving four bullet holes. Following procedure, the ROKA reacted with broadcast warnings, followed by two bursts of return fire (10 rounds each). Though a clear breach of 2018’s inter-Korean military agreement, Seoul reckons the North did not intend a provocation. The JCS noted that “it was quite foggy and the North Korean soldiers usually rotate shifts around that time,”

: Yonhap, South Korea’s quasi-official news agency, cites an unnamed Blue House official as denying that Kim Jong Un has undergone any kind of medical procedure.

: Kim Jong Un reappears. Flanked by most of the top DPRK leadership, he cuts a ribbon to open the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, some 50 miles north of Pyongyang. NKNews notes a new mark on his wrist, which could indicate a minor cardiac procedure.

: Reiterating the ROK’s consistent stance, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul denounces reports that Kim Jong Un is gravely ill as “fake news,” and deplores what he calls an “infodemic” of speculation on the subject.

: MOU releases mid-term plan for developing inter-Korean relations. Ideas include a joint event in June to mark the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit. There is no sign that Pyongyang is interested.

: South Korea designates a planned 111-km railway, running north from the east coast port city Gangneung to Jejin near the DMZ, as an inter-Korean project. This means reconstruction can proceed without the normal feasibility study.

: MOU approves an unnamed NGO’s plan to send 20,000 items of protective clothing worth $162,000 to help North Korea combat COVID-19. No more details are given.

: Daily NK, a Seoul-based online journal run by activists and defectors with sources inside North Korea, alleges that Kim Jong Un is recovering after heart surgery. It later modifies that to “a cardiovascular procedure.” (Unlike other media, Daily NK does not claim that Kim is gravely ill, much less dead.) This report intensifies worldwide media speculation.

: Various South Korean government sources insist that all is normal in the North. Seoul firmly maintains that line, damping down speculation about Kim’s health.

: MOU reports that the number of North Koreans visiting the South fell from 809 in 2018 to zero in 2019 as relations chilled. 9,835 South Koreans visited the North. If commuting by ROK staff at the joint liaison office in Kaesong is excluded, the figure drops to 576: sharply down from 4,612 in 2018.

: Reiterating its determination to facilitate individual tourism to North Korea, MOU adds that this is subject to progress in tackling the coronavirus.

: Customary celebrations of “Sun’s Day”—Kim Il Sung’s birthday—in Pyongyang are scaled down, presumably due to COVID-19 concerns. Unprecedentedly, Kim Jong Un is not present.

: Four-yearly parliamentary elections in South Korea see a swing to Moon’s ruling Democratic Party (DP), giving it an overall majority in the National Assembly for the first time. Two North Korean defectors win seats for the conservative opposition, including former diplomat Thae Yong-ho (now Tae Ku-min), who is elected in Gangnam.

: DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), North Korea’s rubber-stamp Parliament, holds its annual spring session—two days late, without explanation. The agenda includes the usual economic and budget reports, as always with no hard numbers. Kim Jong Un, who is no longer an SPA deputy, does not attend this year.

: Kim Jong Un chairs Politburo meeting of the Central Committee (CC) of the ruling Workers’ Party (WP). Thereafter Kim is unseen until May 1, which sparks external speculation about his health and whereabouts.

: MOU predicts—correctly, it turns out, suggesting good intelligence sources in Pyongyang—that coronavirus concerns may prompt North Korea to streamline its upcoming parliamentary meeting (see April 12) by having deputies register on the day—rather than the usual 1-2 days in advance, followed by paying homage at the Kims’ mausoleum and the like.

: MOU says it will give aid worth $5.73 million to the DPRK via international agencies this year. This comprises $4 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) for women and children, announced in December, and $1.73 million through the Red Cross to help typhoon recovery efforts. Seoul’s contribution is much the largest within the global total of $9.43 million in aid to North Korea pledged this year. MOU also okays an unnamed NGO’s plan to supply hand sanitizers worth $81,000 to North Korea to help fend off COVID-19, the first such private aid this year.

: Despite Pyongyang’s threat a day earlier to stop negotiating with the US, MOU reiterates Seoul’s readiness to assist a resumption of long-stalled denuclearization talks.

: ROK’s Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Promotion Council (IKECPC) approves spending 688 million won ($565,000) to create a digital archive of relics unearthed when, for a decade starting in 2007, the two Koreas jointly excavated Manwoldae palace near Kaesong, which was Korea’s capital during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392).

:  North Korea fires what appear to be two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea.

: At a memorial ceremony at the ROK Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek on the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the frigate Cheonan, with 46 lives lost, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo says, “We should protect the Northern Limit Line (NLL, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border) all the more tightly to make sure past sorrows such as the Cheonan attack never are repeated, and establish North Korea’s denuclearization and the Korean Peninsula’s lasting peace.” Pyongyang has always denied responsibility.

: Seoul says South Korean NGOs can get government financial support for coronavirus-related aid projects in North Korea if they have an agreement with Pyongyang. Two days later, though, MOU nixes a bid by the local administration in Gyeonggi province (which surrounds Seoul) to send masks and test kits worth 1.2 billion won ($980,000), saying that this “failed to meet the requirements.”

: A day after Kim Yo Jong reveals that Trump offered to assist Pyongyang in combating the coronavirus, Seoul repeats its call for the two Koreas to work together on this: “from the perspective of humanitarian and mutually beneficial cooperation … closely related to the right to health and survival of the people of both countries.”

: Seoul renews its call for the two Koreas to cooperate in fighting COVID-19.

:  North Korea fires two projectiles presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea.

: MOU licenses two border cities, Paju and Goyang, to operate independent humanitarian aid projects in North Korea. Four other local governments—Seoul and Incheon cities, and South Chungcheong and Gyeonggi provinces (but see March 24 below)—already have such permission. This is all somewhat notional, given Pyongyang’s non-cooperation.

: In two statements on successive days, MOU pours cold water on calls for the KIC to be reopened to produce face masks, in short supply in the South. The ministry notes that, among other obstacles, North Korea has completely closed its borders as an anti-coronavirus measure.

: North Korea again test-fires projectiles (three, this time) into the East Sea. South Korea again remonstrates. Two further tests follow on March 20 and 28—making this the DPRK’s busiest ever month for missile launches, with a total of nine projectiles fired.

: Conservative daily Chosun Ilbo claims that Kim’s letter to Moon asked for help fighting the coronavirus, and that Moon responded positively. MOU denies this, insisting that the North has not requested any such assistance.

: The Inter-Korean Unification Party (IKUP), the first political party formed by North Korean defectors in the South, is officially launched in Seoul. Its program is to liberate the North from autocracy and promote defector rights in the South. It goes on to gain a paltry 10,833 votes in April 15’s elections. (See also February 18 above.)

: After an ROK TV channel aired footage of a DPRK medical worker wearing a dental mask with the logo of a Southern brand, Seoul denies that South Korea has provided any facemasks to North Korea.

: Blue House says Kim Jong Un has sent Moon a personal letter, delivered the previous day. Expressing “quiet support” for South Korea’s fight against the coronavirus, and solicitude for Moon’s health, Kim assures Moon of “his constant friendship and trust.” Kim also gives his “frank” thoughts about the situation on the peninsula; these are not revealed.

: Spokesman says the Blue House is “prudently” analyzing Kim Yo Jong’s diatribe, and does not plan to respond formally. MOU calls for “mutual respect” between the two Koreas.

: DPRK website Uriminzokkiri attacks ROK movies and dramas for “anti-republic” fabrications. No names are mentioned. Ironically, the TV drama “Crash Landing on You,” all the rage, is widely seen in the South as giving a favorable portrayal of the North—and criticized on that count by some conservatives.

: In her first ever statement published in her name, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong lambastes Seoul’s criticism of the North’s strike drills as (among much else) shocking, senseless, imbecile, and like a frightened dog: “Such incoherent assertion and actions made by Chongwadae only magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the south side as a whole.”

: MOU says South Korea will prepare to expand cooperation with the North in health and related fields. A day later the ministry notes that inter-Korean cooperation on healthcare is a key focus of its annual policy plan, recently delivered to the Blue House. Other goals—easier said than done—include a push for individual tourism to North Korea, and transform the DMZ into a peace zone.

: North Korea test-fires two short-range projectiles, for the first time this year. After holding an emergency videoconference of security chiefs, the Blue House expresses “strong concern” and, in notably mild terms, urges the North to halt acts that are “not helpful to efforts to ease military tensions on the Korean peninsula.”

: On the 101st anniversary of an historic uprising against Japanese occupation, and with coronavirus cases rising fast, Moon calls for international cooperation to fight the virus, including with North Korea and Japan: “The March 1 Independence Movement once again reminds us that we can prevail over anything as long as we stand together.”

: DPRK website Uriminzokkiri scorns Moon’s outreach to Japan, accusing him of “begging for more frequent meetings” with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

: Reacting to news that North Korea’s former diplomat Thae Yong-ho will stand for the conservative United Future Party (UFP) in South Korea’s parliamentary election on April 15, the DPRK website Meari renews allegations against Thae (first made in 2016) of embezzlement and rape. It adds: “Driving these scums (sic) to the forefront of confrontation between the two Koreas is an intolerable challenge to our nation’s desire for unification.”

: A poll of 3,000 Northern defectors (almost 10% of the total, 33,523) by Hana, a state foundation which aids their resettlement, finds that 17.2% experienced discrimination last year: slightly less than the 2018 figure of 20.2%.

: The magazine DPRK Today attacks ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha for what it calls the “spineless act” of discussing North Korean denuclearization with US and Japanese counterparts at the recent Munich Security Conference: “There are still fools asking for subservience and humiliation … oblivious to the bitter lesson history has taught us.”

: With coronavirus cases spiking in South Korea, MOU says it will postpone the resumption of tourism to Panmunjom, scheduled to begin on February 26-28.

: In a rare if backhanded compliment, Choson Sinbo, the newspaper of pro-DPRK ethnic North Koreans in Japan, praises the Oscar-winning ROK film Parasite as a “masterpiece” for laying bare the problem of class warfare, and “clearly revealing the reality in which a small number of the wealthy dominates the absolute majority.” This is the movie’s first mention in any DPRK-related media.

: Seoul says the ROK will consider any requests from international agencies to help Pyongyang fight COVID-19, provided it is formally asked to assist.

: Meeting in Seoul, some 200 North Korean defectors launch a preparatory committee to establish their first-ever political party. (See also March 6, below.)

: MOU says Pyongyang has made no response to calls for the KIC to reopen.

: North Korea finally mentions South Korea’s push for individual tourism to the North—but not favorably. DPRK Today attacks Seoul for seeking US approval for this plan.

: The DPRK website Uriminzokkiri denounces the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), the main ROK conservative opposition party, for recruiting two prominent defectors from North Korea to run as its candidates in forthcoming parliamentary elections in April.

: MOU insists that individual tourism to North Korea by South Koreans is not a matter for consultation with Washington, as this is not banned under UN sanctions.

: Four years after South Korea’s then President Park Geun-hye abruptly closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last inter-Korean joint venture, business persons with investments there hold a rally in Seoul. Urging that the zone be reopened, they ask the government to deliver a letter asking North Korea to let them visit and prepare for reopening. Separately, MOU reiterates its own (more abstract) view that the KIC should reopen when conditions are right.

: At a forum in Pyeongchang, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul reaffirms the need to push for inter-Korean cooperation in railways, roads and tourism.

: MND clarifies that despite otherwise stalled relations, inter-Korean military hotlines are working normally. The two sides communicate twice daily, at 0900 and 1600, plus additionally as circumstances require. MND reiterates this message on April 27.

: MOU says that in weighing the possibility of individual tourism to North Korea, it is “taking the issue of the new coronavirus into consideration.”

: ROK defense ministry (MND) insists that, contra assertions in local media, the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September 2018 does not bar or restrict joint US-ROK military exercises, including near the DMZ.

: Via the new inter-Korean phone line (see Jan. 30), Pyongyang notifies Seoul that, because of coronavirus concerns, it is suspending plans to remove South Korean-built facilities at the Mount Kumgang resort on its east coast.

: In a rare meeting at the now largely idle joint liaison office at Kaesong, North and South Korea agree to temporarily close the facility, due to concerns about the new Wuhan coronavirus strain. All 58 South Koreans working there—17 officials and 41 support staff—return home across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) the same day. MOU says the two Koreas will set up new telephone and fax lines to maintain contact during the suspension.

: MOU says that 1,048 North Korean defectors arrived in the South in 2019, the lowest figure in 18 years. As usual, females (845) outnumbered males (202). After peaking at 2,904 in 2009, since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 numbers have fallen to below 1,500 annually.

: A day after US Ambassador to the ROK Harry Harris says Seoul should consult Washington on any plans to engage Pyongyang, MOU retorts that “Our policy with regard to North Korea comes under our sovereignty.”

: Citing unspecified ROK government sources, Yonhap says North Korea has again demanded that the South remove its facilities at Mount Kumgang. (But see January 31.)

: Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul affirms that Seoul will look at ways to improve relations with Pyongyang without waiting for progress in US-DPRK talks. The same day his ministry says it is looking at “various formats” to allow South Koreans to visit Mount Kumgang. A day later MOU adds: “We are making a list of what we can do on our own [in terms of joint projects with North Korea] with regard to inter-Korean relations”

: Moon at his New Year’s press conference insists that it is premature “to be pessimistic about South-North dialogue and North Korea-US dialogue.” Despite admitting that now is “not a stage to be optimistic” either, Moon says he will keep pushing to expand inter-Korean cooperation with an “optimistic prospect.” He adds that such cooperation could help build momentum for easing sanctions against Pyongyang.

: In a thinly veiled criticism of Moon’s push for individual tourism to Mount Kumgang, the US State Department insists that Washington and Seoul are committed to a unified approach toward Pyongyang.

: Reacting to the above, North Korea’s ex-nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan, now an adviser to DPRK foreign ministry, chides “the excited south Korean authorities” for their “lingering hope for playing the role of ‘mediator’ in the DPRK-US relations,” which he calls “presumptuous … meddling.” He warns Seoul it “had better not dream a fabulous dream that we would return to the dialogue with thankful feelings for the birthday greetings.”

: NK News reports MOU as saying that Seoul is considering how to make it easier for South Koreans to visit the North—including, potentially, being issued DPRK visas. The spokesperson added: “It is our consistent stance that sanctions against North Korea [do] not apply to independent tours.” He added that North and South are “in discussions” on the resumption of tourism, while admitting “differences in stance” and continued concerns.

: Fresh back from Washington DC, where he briefly met President Trump, Chung Eui-yong, head of the Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae) national security office, says that the US president asked President Moon to wish Kim Jong Un a happy birthday on his behalf. (The DPRK leader turned 36—probably—on Jan. 8.) Chung adds that the birthday greeting was duly delivered, but does not reveal how it was transmitted.

: MOU tells NK News that, despite the impasse in inter-Korean ties, it approved 612 contacts with North Korea last year, down 15% from 707 in 2018. A larger fall might have been expected, but these data are only for applications by South Koreans to meet, phone, fax, or email the North. They do not necessarily imply that such contact actually took place.

: President Moon Jae-in delivers his New Year’s Address. Unlike Kim, Moon has much to say about inter-Korean relations. Regretting the current impasse, but not blaming the North, he reiterates his commitment to cooperation across the board, and also to realizing Kim’s long-promised visit to South Korea. He does not mention the nuclear issue.

: Seoul announces what it calls a major restructuring of MOU. This will create a new division within the ministry’s Office of Exchange and Cooperation to handle border cooperation issues, such as turning the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into a “global peace zone.” The ROK Cabinet duly approves the reorganization on February 4.

: The Wall Street Journal reports that US diplomats intervened with Vietnamese authorities in December to prevent 13 North Korean refugees—two of whom had attempted suicide—from being repatriated to Pyongyang. The ROK government denies allegations that it had been reluctant to assist. The 13 are said now to be safe in an undisclosed location.

: Yonhap, the quasi-official ROK news agency, quotes the Unification Ministry (MOU) as saying that, given Kim’s silence about South Korea in his recent speech, Seoul is “closely watching” whether Pyongyang plans to issue a separate message about inter-Korean relations. This stance of watching and waiting is reiterated on January 7. The South waits in vain: no message is forthcoming from the North.

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