17.07.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Peace, friendship, confederation?

755aeb9376_300cropThe North Korean government has offered South Korea a truce and unification based on the principles of a federation or confederation. This was written in an official government statement circulated on July 7, 2014 by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

“There is increasingly more interest in a Korean reunification on the principles of a federation, two parts with different social systems and ideologies,” the statement reads. “Like a federation and confederation, the North and South must combine efforts for reunification and actively aid each other in prosperity and mutual interests,” the North Korean government stated.

North Korea has also called upon South Korea to reject “confrontation and enmity with their brothers”. South Korea was called on to reject hosting various military exercises with “outsiders”, rid itself from dependency on “external forces” and face its brothers to the north, the statement reads.

The North Korean government believes that the current conflict has escalated to a very dangerous point where any “careless remark or action” can lead to a conflict and war.

North Korea, in turn, offered to begin reconciliation on the foundation of the treaties signed in June of 2000 in Pyongyang between the South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il.

Earlier in the year at the end of June, North Korea already made a proposal to suspend the mutual hostilities both in the military sphere and in terms of propaganda. The corresponding statement was made by the State Defence Committee and published on Monday by the KCNA. The statement particularly focused on reducing tensions in the Yellow Sea, where Pyongyang calls for halting military exercises with missile launches. Pyongyang was ready to start implementing the proposed plan from July 4.

The proposal for reconciliation and a confederation led to a real uproar in Russia media as North Korea suddenly did not fit the image carefully structured for it by the same media. After all, virtually all news about North Korea have the feeling of a scandalous bombshell and, as the author noted previously, any artillery or missile fire is construed as if North Korea manufactured its own Death Star scene from the movie Star Wars.

There are those “specialists” who have already drawn their own conclusions on the radical change in the North Korean stance and have already come up with several intelligent-sounding (in their opinion) reasons for it, and they need to be reminded that that which is news for journalists has long ceased to be new for the Koreans themselves. The North Koreans have been proposing a federation or confederation since the beginning of the 1950s, the year the so-called “Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo” project emerged.

From a practical standpoint, this proposal is of a strictly ceremonial nature because without serious forward momentum, the economic and cultural divide between the North and South is so large that even a confederation as a form of government is still a big “if”.

Generally speaking, inter-Korean dialogue has both sides periodically appear with eloquent statements whose goal is to demonstrate that it is “our half of Korea” that is leading active diplomatic negotiations, proposing ideas and is ready for a consensus, while “they” only know how to engage in demagogy and provocations. In truth, these proposals often contain impossible conditions, and in this respect, the North Korean “we’re ready for negotiations if the South rejects holding joint exercises with the US and rids its politics of foreign interference” is not much different than South Korea’s “we’re ready for negotiations if the North rejects nuclear weapons and conducts democratic reform”.

This is why the South Korean reaction to the North’s proposal is not surprising, “Instead of repeating bold and irrational statements, the North should enter into negotiations with the South as quickly as possible”. This was the statement made on Monday by the Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do. He also stated that the South cannot accept the North’s stance that nuclear weapons are guarantors of peace and a peaceful prosperity of the people, noting that the North constantly tries to impose its viewpoint and to shift responsibility to someone else. “If Pyongyang truly wants peace, then it needs to show its resolve by resolving the nuclear problem – the key threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

This is why the expert is most interested in two aspects. Firstly, this is the proposal to “reboot” which is rooted in the summit of 2000. This was a seriously important event for which the South Korean President Kim Dae-jung rightfully received a Nobel Peace Prize. This was, of course, followed by the summit of 2007, but its organiser Roh Moo-hyun held it a few months before his retirement and used this meeting of the highest government echelons as more of a political PR move and a way to shift certain responsibilities onto his successor. Despite the fact that several proposals from 2007 were undoubtedly beneficial for North Korea (for example, the demilitarised region on the contested marine border), Pyongyang still made several concessions here. And this is certainly a show of some flexibility.

The decreased activity on the Phungeri nuclear test site can also be added here. This was evidenced by analysing satellite images, as stated in the Seoul newspaper Hanguk Ilbo: “All of the personnel have been recalled and it appears that virtually all of the equipment which was earlier located in the tunnels on the test site has been removed”. One theory states that this is meant to send a positive message to the neighbours and the US. Another – the equipment and personnel are temporarily removed due to the threat of mudslides in the current rainy season.

The second aspect is the statement that any action or remark could lead to an armed conflict and therefore the countries should refrain from being careless with these. Either the North Koreans have realised the danger of what one author called an “irrational factor” when the war could begin not because of an evil plot by the leadership, but as a result of a whirlwind of events “from below”, or this is a hint to some actions by the other side, which the Northerners are warning about in advance.

There is another element here which should be considered. Parallel with its diplomatic advance, North Korea conducted a series of short-range missile launches, including those which could theoretically overcome the South Korean missile defence system. In Lee Myung-bak’s time, this would have caused a veritable media outrage, but today, the South’s reaction is significantly calmer. Although, the nature of Park Geun-hye’s current inter-Korean politics and how they fit the “Eurasian Initiative” is a topic for another in-depth examination.

What is the bottom line here? There is another round of diplomatic games in play, and these games, of course, are better than an exchange of threats. But we must also remember that the difference between statements and actions is fairly significant. For example, we can look towards how long they will refrain from sincerely insulting President Park Geun-hye, who has been compared to a kisen (a geisha), or the US leadership. This will give a clearer idea of how strongly Pyongyang wants a truce.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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