North Korea’s Incheon Landing

WASHINGTON, DC – North Koreans relish the element of surprise when they get to choose the stage and command the theatrics. The unexpected visit of three top leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon last week, stole the show from the athletes.

The three visitors – Hwang Pyong-so, Vice Chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, and two other senior officials from the Workers’ Party of Korea, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon – met with the South Korean prime minister, national security adviser to the president, and the head of the Ministry of Unification. It was a rather merry occasion, with leaders on both sides promising to meet again next month and offering abundant smiles and handshakes for the cameras.

Korea observers are wondering what this means for the future of the inter-Korean relationship. Is the government in Pyongyang trying to send a message to South Korea, the United States, and China? Will the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2009, resume?

The clearest answer is that there is no clear answer. In recent months, North Korea has been exploring new diplomatic territory, with high-level officials engaging Europe, Japan, and the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Last week, the DPRK mission to the UN even responded to a highly critical human rights report by acknowledging its labor camps (which it defended as a means of “re-education” and “reform”).