WP: While Kim Jong Un is absent, North Korean diplomats are working overtime

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – TOKYO — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have disappeared from the public eye, but his diplomatic representatives sure haven’t.

There’s Ri Su Yong, who’s been everywhere from Burma and Indonesia to Ethiopia and Iran since he became foreign minister in April. Last month, he addressed the United Nations, the first North Korean to do so in 15 years, and on Friday, he wrapped up 10 days in Russia.

There’s Kang Sok Ju, the international affairs secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, then Italy. Oh yes, and he met the Mongolian president in Beijing on his way home.

There have been meetings between North Korean and Japanese officials about a decades-old abduction dispute that Tokyo is hoping to resolve once and for all.

And then there are the top officials — including the No. 2 and No. 3 behind Kim — who showed up in South Korea last weekend, meeting with the prime minister and unification minister and promising to talk again soon.

In late September, North Korean state TV said leader Kim Jong Un was suffering from “discomfort.” (Reuters)

Kim himself hasn’t been seen in five weeks, and on Friday, he failed to show up for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party, fueling speculation that he’s more than sick. His absence, coupled with surprisingly frank official reports that he is suffering from “discomfort,” have sparked rumors of maladies ranging from obesity to overthrow.

As with most things concerning North Korea, the truth remains far from clear. But the state-run Korean Central News Agency notably left Kim’s name off a list of dignitaries who paid their respects early Friday to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where their bodies lie.

It has become a ritual for top leaders to go to the mausoleum — a huge, marble-lined palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang officially known as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun — just after midnight as the anniversary begins.

But the news agency reported only that a basket of flowers bearing the current leader’s name was placed before statues of the first two Kims in the world’s only communist dynasty. It was the first time since he succeeded his father almost three years ago that Kim Jong Un had missed the event.

Still, North Korea is embarking on the most intensive outreach since Kim took over, and most analysts agree that such frenzied activity abroad would be unlikely if there were real turmoil at home.

“This is the most active period of foreign diplomatic activity that we’ve seen out of Kim Jong Un for sure,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re really reaching out, and the question is why. What’s motivating them? I don’t think anybody knows for sure.”

This charm offensive appears aimed at trying to make the United States look as if it’s out of step with the rest of the world, as if it’s the country that’s really isolated.

Even as he talks with almost everyone else, Ri turned down offers to speak to U.S. government officials and “track two” representatives on the sidelines of the U.N. meetings in New York. Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected offers from the State Department’s top three point men on North Korea to visit to discuss the status of three Americans detained there, even as it calls for dialogue.

Pyongyang wants to talk only to countries that will not raise the pesky issue of its nuclear program, officials and analysts say.

In Europe, Kang told some of his interlocutors that the only basis for U.S.-North Korean dialogue would be “as one nuclear state to another” — a position that is clearly unacceptable to the United States — according to one person familiar with the meetings.

Washington is both frustrated and disappointed by Pyongyang’s unwillingness to engage.

“They’re trying to gain acceptance as a normal nation on the world stage, and to keep their nuclear weapons program in the process,” said a senior administration official. “Put simply, they are trying to push the nuclear issue off the agenda.”

Snyder agreed. “It’s very clear that the area of most stasis is with the U.S. and the main issue for the U.S. is the denuclearization issue,” he said.

The diplomatic efforts come as North Korea exhibits a new level of openness. This week, it admitted for the first time that it runs “labor detention camps,” and state news media have taken the unusual steps of reporting Kim’s ill health and an apartment building collapse.

But Western analysts also warn against expecting any kind of meaningful opening up from Pyongyang.

Evans Revere, a former top U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang, said it appears North Korea is reverting to a familiar pattern: a “charm offensive” that leads to dialogue, followed by agreement, then the breakdown of dialogue and the collapse of agreement, followed by an escalation of threatening rhetoric and even provocation.

“We have been through this cycle before, and it has always ended badly,” Revere said. He noted that the last time two senior North Korean officials visited Seoul, in 2009, it was followed a few months later by torpedo and artillery attacks that killed 50 South Korean sailors, marines and civilians.

Indeed, only a few days after the North Koreans visited the South last Saturday, the two sides were shelling each other on their disputed western sea border. On Friday, North Korea fired shots across the border at activists’ balloons filled with anti-Pyongyang leaflets, and the South sent rounds of bullets back.

“So the cycle begins anew,” Revere said, “and we can only hope that this time it will produce a better result than in the past.”

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