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North Korea Says It Will Stop Trying To Overthrow South Korea. Why now?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who closely watch North Korea are studying the clues that emerged from that secretive regime, and they see a very subtle change in a document released by the government. At least on paper, it seems, North Korea's leaders have altered their stance about bringing communist revolution to South Korea. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: An orchestra played a communist anthem, as ruling Workers Party leaders held a congress in Pyongyang in January. They revised the party's internal rules, which function a bit like a national constitution. But the documents were not published in South Korea until this month. Perhaps the most striking change - the new rulebook drops language about supporting a communist revolution to liberate South Korea, but it keeps the goal of unifying the Korean peninsula under the North's communist rule.

Hong Min, with the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, says this is more about changing language than policy.

HONG MIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Despite the softer language," he says, "unification is still one of the Workers Party's most important projects. Giving it up isn't an easy choice for the North Korean government, as much of its domestic propaganda is linked to unification." To counter that threat, South Korea has had a national security law in place since 1948 that outlaws any pro-communist speech or action. Professor Lee Sang-sook of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a government think tank in Seoul, says that now that the North has dropped its language about inciting revolution in the South...

LEE SANG-SOOK: (Through interpreter) I think you could argue for an even more limited application of the national security law in South Korea.

KUHN: Both Pyongyang and Seoul speak of Korea as a divided country that must be reunited, but the two increasingly look and act like two separate nations. Lee Sang-sook says that Kim Jong Un is simply admitting that reality.

LEE: (Through interpreter) It signifies a change in North Korea's unification strategy, at least under Kim Jong Un's rule, to deprioritize establishment of a unified nation-state.

KUHN: The new rulebook keeps some original language about ending U.S. political and military influence over South Korea. That does not mean North Korea has walked away from the negotiating table for good. The U.S. still holds the keys to lifting sanctions and to the North's economic development. Lee Sang-sook says that even though summit diplomacy with the U.S. broke down, Pyongyang still touts it as a big achievement.

LEE: (Through interpreter) Although North Korea could not achieve early results from nuclear negotiations in summits with the U.S., the fact that they held the summit itself was praised before a domestic audience as proof that North Korea can go head-to-head with the U.S.

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KUHN: Lee points to the state media documentary which shows behind-the-scenes footage of Kim and President Donald Trump's 2019 summit in Vietnam and introduces audiences to some American names that are less well known in North Korea.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken) - Mike Pompeo.

KUHN: Last week, Kim Jong Un told a Workers Party Central Committee meeting that the country should be ready for either dialogue or confrontation with the U.S. The Biden administration has indicated that it hopes for dialogue and has offered talks without preconditions. But state media ran a statement Tuesday by Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, saying that the U.S. is misreading Pyongyang's message and is bound to be disappointed.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "PAUSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.