It’s the Economy, Stupid! What the Korean Peace Process Boils Down To for Kim Jong-un

Three reporting veterans of inter-Korean relations met Friday at the Uncovering Asia conference in Seoul to discuss their perspectives on the Korean Peace Process. While the reporters spoke about the trajectory of negotiations over the peace treaty and denuclearization, all three pointed to North Korea’s main interest in pursuing talks with the South, taking a page from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: It’s the economy, stupid!

Eric Talmadge, Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press, kicked off the panel with short videos of everyday Pyongyang in an effort to show that the capital and its denizens are far more ordinary than outsiders would expect. He compared the country, economically, to other developing countries.

According to Talmadge, the most difficult part about reporting on North Korea is that, while most people know little about the country, they still have strong opinions about it. Based in Tokyo, Talmadge regularly visits the capital of North Korea, overseeing local bureau operations. His videos included shots of central Pyongyang and a new residential area, which was proudly unveiled by Kim Jong-un earlier this year as a “showcase of what North Korea can do.”

Talmadge assured the audience that people do things exactly as we do: take pictures and send them to friends or play games on their mobile phones. He also mentioned a television ad about sweet vinegar — which appeared as a lengthy “infomercial” — as a new concept to North Koreans, indicative of some of the most interesting changes happening in the country.

One of the speakers, Keum Chul-Young from the Korean Broadcasting System, admitted that North Koreans seem to have two personalities — one public and one private, particularly when it comes to praising, or criticizing, their leader.

“They make me so confused,” he said.

Nam Moon-Hae, a special reporter on the Korean peninsula for SisaIN, focused on Kim Jong-un’s public statements after the renewal of peace negotiations, noting the ambiguity of North Korea leader’s statements is targeting a wide audience.

But, said Talmadge, the “primary goal is to improve the economy.” The panel’s moderator Dr. Joon Hyung Kim, from Handong Global University, wrapped up the session by advising that “we should be critical, not cynical.”

Kornelija Ukolovaitė is a student at Minerva Schools at KGI, and is currently based in Seoul. She completed an internship with the investigative unit at Lithuania’s 15min, and is a freelance researcher at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

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