Of all the issues that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had to face during his first ten years in office, managing relations with South Korea was certainly one of the most relevant. Nonetheless, for several years his leadership seemed to downplay the centrality of inter-Korean relations as it put far more efforts into the domestic consolidation of power and the advancement of the country’s nuclear and missile programs to secure the country from possible attacks by external forces and to gain a stronger position in future negotiations with the United States. In fact, both issues were considered as a matter of existential security for the then young leader who had been invested with the crucial task of assuring the survival of his regime. For this reason, a fairly long first phase was characterized by generally hostile relations and by a certain degree of mutual neglect from both sides of the 38° parallel, except for sudden yet limited crises that never led to escalations. When Kim Jong Un ascended to power, the relation between North and South Korea was going through a very problematic phase. In South Korea, Lee Myung-bak’s presidential victory in 2007 ended the era of inter-Korean rapprochement and cooperation that had characterized the previous “progressive decade” under Kim Dae-jung’s and Roh Moo-hyun’s administrations. In the following years, the situation on the Korean peninsula slowly deteriorated with an increasingly hard-line position from both sides. The developments that took place in 2010 – namely, the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, for which an investigation commission accused North Korea and the shelling of the small island of Yeonpyeong by the North Korean artillery – precipitated the situation to one of the lowest points since the end of the Cold War. That was the state of inter-Korean affairs that Kim Jong Un inherited.
Between 2012 and 2013, following the election of a new President in South Korea, Park Geun-hye, the tone of inter-Korean relations was set by the North Korean regime’s decision to launch a satellite into orbit – a clear violation of UN sanctions – and to perform its third nuclear test. These provocative acts, albeit not necessarily directed to South Korea as the main target, negatively affected the prospects for inter-Korean dialogue. For her part, President Park – who as a candidate had suggested a new approach toward North Korea called Trustpolitik – was not able to actively engage with the North Korean leadership into a process of dialogue and cooperation. For these reasons, the first five to six years of Kim Jong Un’s rule saw inter-Korean relations as characterized by a generally hostile situation amid a typical trend of ups and downs that was mainly driven by North Korea’s behaviour and decisions. With the renewed emphasis on the nuclear and missile programs by Pyongyang, inter-Korean relations became basically engulfed by the nuclear issue and the increasingly confrontational dynamics that led to President Park’s decision to halt the operations at the Kaesong industrial complex in February 2016 in response to the North’s fourth nuclear test.
In late 2017, North Korea announced to the world that it had fulfilled the long-pursued aspiration of becoming a nuclear power state, which marked a clear break in Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic strategy with consequence also for the relations with South Korea: a more self-confident leader that was ready to present himself to the world as capable of pursuing diplomatic initiatives and inter-Korean relations were the natural context in which to show this new image. Between 2017 and 2018, two major changes ushered in a second phase.the relations with Seoul. Firstly, liberal candidate Moon Jae-in’s presidential victory, who had worked in the cabinet of Roh Moo-hyun and who was a firm advocate for restarting dialogue with North Korea. On the campaign trail, he called for putting inter-Korean relations at the centre of Seoul’s foreign policy – and not as a corollary of North Korea’s nuclear issue – and for regaining a key role for South Korea. However, the first attempts to recover a more positive relationship between the two Koreas materialized only when Kim Jong Un decided to switch North Korea’s posture towards a more conciliatory attitude in early 2018. In this way, the North Korean leader sought to reaffirm the centrality of his role in determining the developments of inter-Korean relations. The decision to accept Moon’s efforts to reach out to Pyongyang was part of a broader strategy that Kim put in place right after declaring that the country had achieved nuclear power status. His strategy was aimed at creating a new and positive image for himself, as a respectable world leader capable of conducting important diplomatic negotiations and achieve goals for his country. The so-called “Olympic relations” during the Pyeongchang Winter Games in February 2018, the summits with Moon Jae-in, Xi Jinping and other important international figures, and the meeting with US President Trump in Singapore were all shiny examples of that new – and very effective – strategy. In this context, the honeymoon phase of inter-Korean relations lasted until the end of 2018 with three summits between the two Korean leaders and two declarations – the Panmunjom and Pyongyang declarations – that kickstarted an important process of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation that led for instance to the creation of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong in September.
What that second phase of inter-Korean relations under Kim Jong Un era did not achieve was substantial economic cooperation, which was arguably the most important goal for the North Korean regime in the context of Kim’s policy line of byungjin according to which the two pillars of the country’s efforts should be the parallel development of nuclear weapons and of the economy. When the first one was achieved in 2017, the focus switched to the second one. However, the main problem was represented by the international sanctions still in place that prevented any real effort to develop the country’s economy. After the partial failure of the second summit with Trump in Hanoi, in February 2019, and when it became clear that South Korea was not able to move forward in terms of economic cooperation without first eliminating the sanctions, the state of inter-Korean relations changed for the worse for the North Korean side leading to a significant setback compared to the advancements made in the previous months. The regime ostensibly maintained a double track approach. While some high officials including the leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong criticized and lambasted the South Korean government and Moon Jae-in himself, meanwhile, Kim Jong Un kept a more conciliatory approach towards his southern counterpart. That dynamic was probably a sign that the regime wanted to show its discontent towards the situation but at the same time did not want to completely alienate possibilities for future inter-Korean cooperation (a similar dual approach has been maintained towards the U.S. around the nuclear issue). At the same time, strong signals of disappointments were sent towards Seoul as in the case of the very public destruction of the building of the joint liaison office in June 2020.
The situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously affected relations between the two Koreas, which have remained mostly frozen since early 2020. Nonetheless, the developments that took place immediately before the pandemic – and partially during the pandemic – once again introduced again a high level of uncertainty in inter-Korean relations. If Kim Jong Un’s first decade in power has been marked by two distinct phases, it remains to be seen whether the two Koreas are still in the second one, meaning that a resumption of dialogue is still possible, or if a third phase will start soon. In the latter case, the North Korean leader’s role will certainly continue to be crucial, but also the presidential elections in South Korea, scheduled for March 2022, will represent a key factor in determining the future of the relations between the two Koreas.