• Asia-Pacific

S. Korea’s Unification Minister: ‘Public Sentiment Turning Against Government’ in North Korea

The Yomiuri Shimbun
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung Ho speaks in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Seoul on Thursday.

SEOUL — North Korea may be stepping up its antagonism of South Korea as a means of deflecting public dissatisfaction with its government, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung Ho said in interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Thursday.

It is possible that a recent decision to abandon a long-standing policy of eventual peaceful reunification with South Korea could cause discord within the North Korean government, Kim added.

“Economic hardships have become extremely serious, and public sentiment is turning against the government,” Kim said in the nearly 90 minuets interview in his office in Seoul. “[Pyongyang] is trying to provoke hostility with South Korea in order to strengthen solidarity within the regime.”

Kim said North Korea is in a “critical situation” in which insufficient food is getting to people outside of urban areas.

At the end of last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that South Korea would no longer be regarded as a partner of reunification. He said the country should plan for “completely occupying” South Korea in case of a military action, and did not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.

According to Kim Yung Ho, two families escaped North Korea to South Korea last year southward by boat, one via the Sea of Japan and the other via the Yellow Sea.

Both families testified that they escaped after watching South Korean TV dramas. Kim surmises that North Korea is trying to increase hostile feelings toward South Korea because it wants to prevent people from aspiring for a better life in South Korea.

Following the North Korean leader’s speech, some experts expressed concern that the country may be preparing for war. “If North Korea provokes a war, it will be the end of the Kim Jong Un regime. The regime should take such a warning seriously,” Kim said.

Discord and division

In January, Kim Jong Un order the demolishing of the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, a symbol of the spirit of unification for the divided Korean peninsula in Pyongyang.

Kim Yung Ho said that such a move was meant to erase the achievements of Kim Jong Un’s predecessors, his grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il. “This could result in destroying the foundation of the hereditary transfer of power in the country,” the minister said. “It could create confusion and division among the North Korean elite, and we are closely keeping watch.”

Kim Yung Ho regards the Kim regime as “chronically unstable.” Since the third Kim came to power at the end of 2011, he has relied on a “politics of terror” that brooks no opposition, and “the division between the government and people has been widening due to food shortages and other problems.”

Opportunities for support

The conservative government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has taken a hardline stance on North Korea by strengthening deterrence, but Kim emphasized that it considers the issue of people’s lives separately and stands ready to offer humanitarian assistance.

Officials from UNICEF and the World Health Organization who had previously been in North Korea have remained in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim said. “We would like to take advantage of any opportunity [for those organizations] to reenter North Korea, and see how we as South Korea can provide humanitarian assistance.”