06.03.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea–North Korea: a step forward without a step backwards

1322980199_41738 (1)On February 12, 2014, a very significant event occurred in the inter-Korean relations, which was immediately compared with the inter-Korean summit of 2007. However, in the author’s opinion, it would be more correct to compare it with the negotiations of 1972 and 1991, when the level of the inter-Korean confrontation was significantly higher.

In brief, the main point of the event is the following: inter-Korean talks were held at the level of senior officials in the village of Panmunjom, located on the border between the two Koreas. The RK (Republic of Korea) was represented by Kim Kyu-hyun, first deputy chairman of the National Security Council, and the staff of the presidential administration, the Ministry of Unification, executive personnel of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Defense of South Korea. The DPRK was represented by the Deputy Chief of the National Unification Front Won Dong-yeon, and representatives of the State Committee of Defense, the Ministry of Defense and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Motherland.

The subject of the talks was quite broad: “discussion of all possible issues of mutual interest”. In addition, South Korea was going to concentrate on getting guarantees for normal meetings of members of separated families that should be held in the North Korean mountain resort of Kumgang on February 20–25, 2014, and on the attempts to give the event a regular character.

However, according to the South Korean agency Yonhap, the parties failed to make any significant progress in the solution of their existing differences. Although the parties were negotiating for 14 hours (longer than planned, the talks lasted until late at night, and the heads of the delegations held a private meeting), they did not manage to agree even on a joint statement to the press.

According to the agency, the DPRK representatives demanded the postponement of future joint military maneuvers of the RK and the U.S., which are to start on February 24 and should last until April, until after the meetings of separated families. While the southerners stated that regular exercises and the meeting of the relatives are two very different issues that cannot be connected, therefore, it is very likely that the meeting of the members of separated families will be delayed. Then the southerners demanded from their opponents to “prove by their actions the intention to follow the path of nuclear disarmament”, and now northerners parried – “the nuclear issue is not a matter to be discussed between the South and the North”.

The ball was back on the side of North Korea in the form of requirements to influence the media and NGOs, so that they stopped criticizing so harshly the actions, the regime and the leadership of North Korea. The reply of the southerners was predictable, as well – the government has no right to interfere in the activities of free media. However, Seoul has especially noted that the northerners did not require cancellation of the sanctions against the DPRK, imposed by South Korea on My 24, 2010, or resumption of the cooperation project in the mountain resort of Kumgang.

The second round of negotiations continued the course of the first and brought the pleasant news that the meeting of separated Korean families would be held on February 20, in accordance with the previously agreed plan, and would not be, as it seemed on the first day, postponed indefinitely. Additionally, “the parties have agreed to hold discussions on issues of mutual interest, as well as establish high-level contacts”. This can mean different things from “we have agreed to negotiate” to covert preparation for a summit between the two leaders.

Speaking at the press conference, Kim Kyu-hyun told reporters that both sides of the Korean peninsula are going to hold the meeting of members of separated families, in accordance with the three-point communiqué, which was made public in the border village of Panmunjom during the second round of bilateral negotiations. To enhance mutual understanding and enforce trust, the parties have agreed to cease recriminations, to continue negotiations, aimed at addressing mutual interests, encouraging the development of inter-Korean relations. The head of the RK delegation also said that the next high-level dialogue would be held at a mutually convenient time.

What is the importance of the event and what are its prospects? The first point: the secrecy, in which the meeting was prepared, and the speed with which the event was held, show that both in the North and in the South, there are people who are interested in, at least, reducing the intensity of inter-Korean exacerbation. Those who know the author’s articles, dedicated to inter-Korean escalation, might remember that the author is very sensitive to the danger of accidental aggravation, as a result of irrational factors or unauthorized actions from below, including provocations. The course for the creation of such a negotiation platform, regardless of what will be its effectiveness, somewhat reduces this probability.

For comparison, several other, formally more classified events have become victims of information leakage, which indicate political intrigues. As it was the case with the program of South Korean military exercises, which, as it turned out, did not have a defensive character. In this case, the media learned about the consultation only a couple of days before the event from an official statement of the Ministry of National Unification of RK. We can also note that the National Security Council is a body, the value of which has increased under the current president of RK Park Geun-hye. She put this body above the Ministry of Defense, whose leader does not belong to her faction, and who is a supporter of the previous policy.

From the strategic point of view, the initiative of the event came from the southerners: Park Geun-hye started speaking of restoring confidence in inter-Korean relations almost immediately after entry into the presidential race. However, from the tactical point of view, the lead was taken by the northerners, who insisted on a very high level of officials, participating in the meeting.

Here, we should note three important points. The first is that the North Koreans usually rarely advocate peace proposals given the large-scale exercises in the RK. Usually during this period, on the contrary, they give tough replies and threats to turn Seoul into a sea of ​​fire, in case of any attempt at provocations. The southerners repay in kind, and the period of the exercises takes place in an atmosphere of high tension. This time, the northerners have changed tactics.

The second point is related to the statement of the Minister of Defense of the RK, who belongs to the conservative faction. Early this year, he announced that they are likely to have military provocations on the part of North Korea in the period from late January to early March 2014. Some leftist authors had the idea that it is rather the South Korean side, not North Korea, which intends to prepare something in order to lay the blame for its actions on the provocative activities of the North. Half of this time has passed, and things are quiet so far. However, the exercises have not begun yet.

The third point is connected to what was expected from the North Korean leadership, given the fate of Jang Sung-taek. If the audience remembers, the commentators spoke about the fact that the North would tighten the screws, and to raise his prestige, Kim Jong-un would definitely arrange for something provocative on the inter-Korean front, or at least, would activate the anti-southern policy. Yes, there are purges within the country, eliminating Chan’s adherents and those suspected of corruption, but the tone of the North Korean statements remains standard. They cannot help protesting against the exercise, but the tone of the protests is less aggressive than a year ago.

Some network “experts” attribute the North Korean initiatives to the fact that “perhaps, they ran out of food again”. They will be disappointed. North Korea’s food problems are reduced, and if the harvest is good in 2014, North Korea will reach the level of self-sufficiency (albeit a minimum variant – 1,415 calories per day per person) and it will not feel the need for seeking free humanitarian assistance. The improved economic situation of the country will allow the North to buy food supplies abroad, although it has already been doing this over the last few years.

It is clear that the first step was a probing one, therefore, it is interesting to see the next round of such meetings. So far, we see the theoretical willingness to meet and discuss any issues, and we can easily detect the problems that will accompany these discussions.

First, it is the pressure of the general political situation. Park Geun-hye is not a puppet of the U.S.A., and her policy differs significantly from the pro-American policy of Lee Myung-bak, who, on the contrary, often “was too hot to trot”. However, her political situation in the country is not stable enough, and there is still pressure from the United States. Therefore, both sides always have the option of retreating to their former positions, saying that “we were ready for the dialogue, but the behavior of the other side shows their inability to come to terms”. By the way, such shifts forward and backward with exaggerated clinging to the procedural and protocol matters was also characteristic of the talks in Panmunjom that ended the Korean War 1951-53, wearing out the nerves of all the participants.

Second, the pace of negotiations should be very even, as both northerners and southerners have a habit of “taking politeness for concession and concession for weakness”, and after that, they immediately try to increase the success and expand the breakthrough, and announce their diplomatic ‘victory’. Generally, in response to this, the other side gets upset and suspends the process, sometimes slamming the door noisily.

Finally, the “tango is a dance for two”, and to reach a consensus both parties have to take some measures to achieve rapprochement, which should seem visible to their partners. It is not accidentally that Park Geun-hye was criticized for the fact that her program included many demands to the North, but there were no clear indications of how the South should change.

It is clear that each side has its grounds that it cannot lose. For the southerners, these are the military exercises that they cannot cancel. The most that they are ready to do now is to cancel the most rollicking actions, such as the use of strategic bombers and testing of nuclear strikes on North Korean territory. While the northerners, for example, find it difficult to make their policy all of a sudden comply with modern international standards, or to make concessions on the nuclear issue.

As for the previously discussed meetings of separated families, the importance of this event, which had a significant role in the early inter-Korean contacts, decreases with time. The divergence between the two Koreas is growing, while the representatives of separated families, who remember their relatives, are dying. Accordingly, the topic enjoys public support to a lesser extent, therefore, both the North and the South play cynical political games. Short-term meetings of the elderly are cheap events that serve as a symbolic gesture, and if they do not happen, then the hopes of only a small group of individuals are disappointed.

Thus, the parties outlined their positions on matters of principle, rather showing what they are not ready to surrender. However, let us wait and see how the process will develop further, keeping in mind that such things take time. As the correspondent of RG, Oleg Kiriyanov, noted in his article on the same topic (see http://rg.ru/2014/02/13/korei-site.html), official Seoul does not dramatize the situation. On the one hand, there was much hope, and on the other, it was clear from the outset that they would not be able to agree on every issue.

Before his departure for Panmunjom, Kim Kyu-hyun said, “I am going to engage in the dialogue on the basis of an open attitude and soul, aimed at finding a chance to open a new era in the Korean peninsula”. Thus, we hope that thanks to this frame of mind, the negotiations will continue and lead to positive results.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.


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