SEOUL – Kim Jong Un sent South Korean President Moon Jae-in a letter expressing condolences over the coronavirus outbreak, in the North Korean leader’s first public overture to his counterpart in more than four months.
Kim sent a “message of comfort to the South Korean people who are battling against the outbreak of COVID-19,” Moon’s senior secretary for public communication, Yoon Do-han, told reporters during a briefing Thursday in Seoul. Kim also shared “candid thoughts and positions” regarding the two Koreas in the letter, which arrived Wednesday, Yoon said, without elaborating.
The letter was the latest indication that Kim may be ready to resume geopolitical maneuvering with Washington and Seoul, after focusing in recent weeks on his own efforts to prevent any coronavirus outbreaks in North Korea. The overture comes days after Kim oversaw the test-launch of two short-range ballistic missiles designed to evade U.S. and South Korean defenses — the first such provocation since November.
On Wednesday, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, compared Moon’s office to a “frightened dog,” in a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim Yo Jong dismissed the office’s criticism of the missile test as “so regretful and disappointing” and “perfectly foolish.”
The letter fits with a pattern by the North Korean leader of trying to keep his rivals off balance and play them off of one another. In his last known communication with Moon in October, Kim sent the South Korean president a condolence message over the death of his mother. A day later, he launched ballistic missiles.
Kim is probably seeking to renew exchanges with South Korea to secure relief from economic pain caused by efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies. While Kim and Moon held two landmark summits in 2018, the North Korean leader later dismissed Moon as a “meddlesome mediator” after his nuclear talks with U.S. President Donald Trump broke down.
“North Korea can’t help but turn to the South for tourism to resolve its dollar shortage after the coronavirus outbreak in the South comes under control,” Cheong said. “Kim’s letter is clearly aimed at warming up the mood for reconciliation and conversation for future cooperation in the public health and tourism sectors.”
The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 95,000 and killed more than 3,000 worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. Although the country has yet to report any confirmed cases, it has closed its border, cutting off a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.
South Korea, meanwhile, has confirmed more than 6,000 coronavirus cases, a vast majority in the past two weeks. That’s the most outside of China, where the virus was first detected in humans late last year.
In his letter, Kim expressed confidence that South Korea would “prevail in this fight without fail” and offered his “unwavering friendship and trust,” Yoon said. Moon replied with gratitude on Thursday.
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