From handshakes to hostilities: How dangerous is the situation in North Korea? - The BBC - 09.05.22

By Jean Mackenzie - BBC Seoul correspondent


Kim Jong-un is testing North Korea's weapons with renewed urgency, as South Korea prepares to inaugurate a new, hard-line president. After years of stalemate, following failed nuclear talks, tensions on the Korean peninsula are rising.


"I thought about getting an axe, but I decided it would be too difficult to carry, so I settled for a knife."


Sitting in a dimly-lit cocktail bar, late one night, Jenn recounts her detailed escape plan. As a South Korean, living in Seoul, she knew exactly what she would do if the North attacked. First came the weapons, then two motorbikes: one for her, the other for her brother. Their parents would ride on the back.


This way they could cross the city's river quickly, before the North Koreans bombed the bridges, and hopefully make it to the coast before the port was destroyed. One evening she and her brother sat and mapped their route, agreeing to tie ribbons to the trees should they be separated.


This was five years ago. At the time, North Korea was furiously testing missiles that could, in theory, deliver nuclear bombs to the United States, and its then President Donald Trump was threatening to respond with "fire and fury". Jenn admits she was more worried than most. But nonetheless, this was the closest many South Koreans felt they had come to war since fighting with North Korea ended almost 70 years ago.


Then something remarkable happened. South Korea's newly-elected president at the time, Moon Jae-in, convinced Mr Trump to meet Kim Jong-un. It was the first time a sitting US president had ever met the leader of North Korea. A flurry of historic summits followed, sparking hope that the North might just agree to give up its nuclear weapons, and the two Koreas would make peace.


Excitement fizzed as President Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, arrived in the Capital Pyongyang and stepped out into a packed stadium, grasping the hand of his adversary. The audience didn't know what to do, recalls Prof Moon Chung-in, the president's advisor at the time. They had been told this man was their enemy, yet here he was on their soil, proposing peace. Suddenly, the 150,000 North Korean spectators erupted in raucous applause. "It was amazing to watch, it was a very moving moment for me," he says.


But as President Moon leaves office, the hopes of that year lie in tatters. When a nuclear deal between the United States and North Korea collapsed in 2019, so did talks between the Koreas. There has been a stalemate ever since. Meanwhile North Korea has continued to develop its weapons of mass destruction and is once again testing them with alarming frequency. Only this time, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine mean the eyes of the world have been focused elsewhere.


Asked if the government failed, Prof Moon Chung-in is defensive. "No, I don't think so! Was there war?" He reasons that for five years the Moon government kept the peace during one of the biggest crises in inter-Korean relations. It also showed what incentives would get North Korea to the negotiating table. The problem, he believes, is that North Korean negotiators returned empty-handed, in what was a great embarrassment for the regime, and almost certainly a punishable offence.


President Moon tried everything he could to coax the North Koreans back to talks, but in doing so he has been accused of appeasing one of the world's most brutal dictators.


"When I saw those pictures of them with their arms around each other laughing, it sent shivers down my back," remembers Hanna Song, from her office in downtown Seoul. Her organisation, the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, has been tracking human rights violations in North Korea for more than two decades. The last few years have not been easy.


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Kim Jong-un is testing North Korea's weapons with renewed urgency, as South Korea prepares to inaugurate a new, hard-line president Yoon Suk-yeol . After years of stalemate, following failed nuclear talks, tensions on the Korean peninsula are rising.

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