In 2019, Pyongyang clearly condemned South Korea's role as a mediator and facilitator through Kim Jong-un's speech at the 14th Supreme People's Assembly on April 12. This attitude remained even after the ROK-DPRK-U.S. Summit at Panmunjeom on June 30.
North Korea tested eight short-range projectiles between July and September, denouncing ROK-U.S. joint military drills. This was in conflict with Kim mentioning that he was "not opposing the annual ROK-U.S. joint military exercise or training" during a South Korean delegation's visit to the North in 2018.
Pyongyang also highly criticized Moon Jae-in's vision for the improvement of inter-Korean relations in an August speech, and eventually announced the demolition of South Korean facilities at Mount Kumgang tourist spots on October 23.
What is more serious is that North Korea has been responding passively to complying with agreements such as the "Panmunjeom Declaration" (April 27, 2018) and the "Pyongyang Joint Declaration" (September 19, 2018). This raises serious questions about the North's recognition of the South and the existence of its "strategic decision" built by Kim in 2018.
Moreover, North Korea's repeated mention of a "new path" in the second half of this year is fueling concerns over the recurrence of tensions and crises on the Korean Peninsula. These attitudes can be attributed to the disappointment from the slow U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiations, mutual distrust between the U.S. and North Korea and dissatisfaction with South Korea's leadership. However, more than others, there is Pyongyang's insistence on wanting to take the lead in inter-Korean relations.
An important characteristic of Kim's era, compared to previous generations, is his obsession with self-respect. Since he took power, the representative message that could be observed in his New Year's addresses or announcements in North Korea's media was that North Korea has grown to a "great nuclear state and military power in the East" by putting itself in a position to compete with existing powers.
In an extension of his "self-respect," Kim has frequently shown a willingness to take the leadership in inter-Korean relations. In the past, Kim Jong-Il's era was characterized by a defensive posture that was concerned with the gap in national power between the two Koreas.
North Korea under Kim Jong-un seems to believe that it is natural for the North to lead inter-Korean relations as it has the superiority in overall strategic capabilities (nuclear/weapons of mass destruction capabilities) while only lagging behind South Korea's economy. In other words, there is an inherent sense that South Korea should be dragged into the blueprint presented by the North, unlike its past stance of selectively taking advantage of cooperation in terms of economic power.
Considering this obsession with leadership, South Korea's role as a mediator or facilitator is unacceptable from Kim Jong-un's point of view. Even if other North Korean officials contemplate this is the wrong direction, there is no one in the current power structure in North Korea who can speak straight about it, which must have further strengthened Kim's self-respect.
While Seoul will sustainably and patiently continue to push for cooperation with Pyongyang and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, there is a limit to the true improvement of inter-Korean relations without Kim and Pyongyang's change of consciousness in the mid to long term.
The pursuit of "peace" and co-existence of the two Koreas is definitely a shared goal, however, this can only start with recognizing North Korea as a state-level actor Furthermore, it inevitably entails "competition" and "leadership" in relations between the state-level actors. In short, South Korean leadership in Korean Peninsula affairs cannot be abandoned even if it ultimately seeks coexistence and cooperation with the North. Even though some parts of South Korean politics prefer the inter-Korean relationship, which is ostensibly dominated by North Korea, this will be insufficient to gain consensus in the domestic arena.
To break the so called position that Kim has in inter-Korean relations, South Korea needs clearly to declare what is possible and impossible to yield. It also must show that from the North's point of view, South Korea has more than "the ability to make something happen" but the "the ability to keep the North from doing anything it wants".
Of course, these options are difficult to secure with South Korea's sole ability, therefore, it needs cooperation from neighboring countries. Addressing Pyongyang's reckless self-respect is crucial not only for the Korean Peninsula but also for stability and prosperity in Northeast Asia. This is why South Korea and China should come together on this issue.
Cha Du-hyeon is the visiting professor in the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyunghee University.