Pyongyang’s poor choice

Pyongyang’s poor choice
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Although South Koreans are accustomed to North Korean antics, the latest involving UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was as surprising as it was plain foolish.

In Korea to attend the UNESCO-organised World Education Forum 2015, Ban made a surprise announcement on May 19 that he would be visiting the Gaeseong Industrial Complex ― a symbol of inter-Korean economic co-operation located in the North Korean border town of Gaeseong ― on May 21. However, on the eve of the trip, he announced that his visit had been cancelled by North Korea.

The North Koreans apparently cancelled their agreement on Ban's tour ― which had been in the works for quite some time ― literally overnight, informing him of the cancellation in the early morning of May 20 through its New York diplomatic channel.

Speculation abounds as to why North Korea abruptly changed its mind just one day before what would have been the first ever visit to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex by a UN secretary-general.

Some say Pyongyang may have never intended for Ban to visit Gaeseong. Others point out that Ban's remarks on May 19 that North Korea's development of missile and nuclear weapons was in violation of UN Security Council resolutions may have irked the North.

While we can only speculate about what caused North Korea to rescind its invitation, we can know for certain the consequences of the move. Pyongyang has willingly thrown away a chance at improving inter-Korean relations and also a chance at coming out of its increasing isolation.

At a time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, Ban, as the UN secretary-general, is in a unique position to relay a message of peace.

He would have been able to broker a thaw in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, especially since South Korea has been looking into the possibility of lifting the nearly five-year economic sanctions, which have left Gaeseong Industrial Complex, exempt from the sanctions, the only symbol ― a tenuous one at that ― of inter-Korean co-operation.

Ban would also have been able to bring renewed global attention to the need for humanitarian assistance to North Korea, a country whose people suffer from poverty, hunger and lack of health care services.

In canceling Ban's visit, Pyongyang lost far more than whatever it may have sought to gain by changing its mind.

While North Korea's unpredictability is generally perceived as business-as-usual, it is the first time that the UN has been subjected to its whims.

As far as international norms go, Pyongyang has committed a gross diplomatic faux-pas. But then, it has never been one to follow international norms.

What is of greater concern is that the sudden cancellation of Ban's visit may be indicative of problems in the country's decision-making process and by extension may indicate that Kim Jong-un does not have complete control over North Korea.

Indeed, North Korea watchers suggest that the decision to host Ban in Gaeseong may have been overturned by military hardliners in Pyongyang.

The cancellation of Ban's visit was followed later in the afternoon by a statement from North Korea's National Defence Commission that it has miniaturized and diversified its nuclear warheads.

Earlier this month, Pyongyang claimed that it successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

In highlighting its claims of heightened military capability, rather than using Ban's visit as a gateway for improvement in inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang appears to have chosen a path of continued military provocations and tensions.

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