14.12.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How much can the “Trust-Building Process” be trusted?

35345222Among the inter-Korean games the trendy new term “trust-building process” refers to moving on from ex-president Lee Myung-bak confrontational policy. His successor Park Geun-hye who put forward this slogan, considers the re-establishment of trust between the two Koreas to be one of her government’s top five priorities.

It is assumed that for the normalization of inter-Korean relations and the preparation of future union of the two Koreas, it will be necessary to implement measures to restore trust step by step, and that the resulting trust will help organise and expand cooperation in many areas, starting with the economy.

In the current situation, building confidence is really important, especially in terms of overcoming suspicions and misconceptions which may cause an “accidental war”. We have repeatedly written about this, touching on the topic of irrational factors. Trust is what makes negotiation possible, because without it any attempt, even the most sincere, to establish contact or reach a consensus will be reinterpreted for hidden meaning and a catch. And when they are found, it is decided that this is a particularly cunning plan, which is certainly to be rejected.

The theory of “trust-building activities” is quite well developed, and the author wants to lead its basic postulates so that at least the audience can assess the subsequent relationship between words and deeds:

  • ​Establishing trust is not a zero sum game, but a process in which both parties benefit.
  • Regional standards and peculiarities should be taken into account.
  • Trust creates not so much new institutions as the foundations for their operation, and units that can prevent the breakdown of relationships. The process in this case is often more important than the final result.
  • Objectives should be clearly and precisely defined and distinguished by their realistic and pragmatic approach. A long-term program can be implemented only when policies do not change for a long time.

Accordingly, specific methods for establishing trust and influencing the partner’s choices are based on:

  • Development of a sense of community, understanding that safety is our common cause – through building understanding and recognition for each of our interests and rights to achieve these interests;
  • Focus on what will happen after the next step – through the full development of trust-building measures and a system of permanent contacts to maintain dialogue;
  • Focus on what is realistically achievable, then – gradual expansion of the scope of the results achieved through building cooperation mechanisms by “generating habits for joint action from simple to complex and from small to large”.

However, it should be noted that the restoration of trust is a more complicated process than it seems. Firstly, the image of an enemy easily takes root. Secondly, it is psychologically very difficult to lay down one’s weapons without a clear assurance that the opponent does not take advantage of one’s magnanimity. Thirdly, it is the factor of misguided expectations, associated with the idea that the restoration of trust is as rapid a process as the loss of trust. Furthermore, a characteristic habit of both North and South Koreans is to see concessions as weakness, and immediately to begin increasing the pressure at the risk of going too far and achieving the opposite effect.

Thus, the establishment of trust requires action from both sides. In order to establish mutual trust, each side must give up something, sacrifice something. It should not be an “empty item” (previously included in the bartering process in order to then be dropped out) and not a deliberate bluff, but something that is really capable to convince the other side of sincerity. And if we look at the inter-Korean situation from a particular angle, we can see that discussion of the need for sincerity relate exclusively to the North. It is the North that must change, it must make concessions, and it must take irreversible actions.

In conversations with South Korean colleagues, I have repeatedly asked the question: “What are you willing to do, what are you willing to sacrifice to win trust?” The typical response is usually nothing. Meanwhile, there is much the South can do at least for the first step. I’m not talking about the abolition of anti-North Korean sanctions of May 24, 2010, because this involves a serious reason such as the uncovering of evidence that shows that North Korea was not involved in the sinking of the Cheonan corvette. But let’s turn our attention to what sabotaged the last attempt to establish a dialogue at the highest level.

On the last day of the Asian Games on 4 October 2014, a North Korean delegation came to the South, a delegation which, among others, included the third or fourth highest ranking person in the North Korean hierarchy. This visit was a very large potential step forward in order to achieve consensus. In this case, the Northerners did not put forward any conditions that might be regarded as derogatory. There were no, for example, demands for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from the country or the cessation of military cooperation, which Pyongyang proclaims during escalations or in response to demands by Seoul for immediate denuclearization. Delegates only asked Seoul to solve a problem with the leaflets, which can actually be solved quite easily. In situations when this was needed, or when RK leadership really feared that in response to the launching of balloons Pyongyang would undertake an armed response. “Civil activists” were not allowed in restricted areas where they usually launched the leaflets, they even tried to prosecute particularly questionable individuals, especially since there is quite a legal base for this.

But no, all of a sudden it became clear that South Korea is a free country, and the government cannot simply ban leaflets. As a result, although the action was partially thwarted by local residents who did not want to be held hostage to foreign political games, the promising attempt at dialogue failed.

Another incident was this past autumn 2014 with the “Hoguk” manoeuvres. It was openly stated that the manoeuvres were a rehearsal for a full-scale war with North Korea. Although the scale of the manoeuvres was supposedly in response to a similar North Korean activity, one just needs to look at the news feeds to realise that North Korea has not conducted any large-scale manoeuvres in recent times. Judging by the periodic leaks from the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Korea (RK), the capture of Pyongyang has been worked out at the annual manoeuvres since 2012. The manoeuvres involve ships and aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Options for using them have also been practised during the exercises. And if, as some Westerners, we were to use the term “nuclear blackmail”, then it could be applied to these manoeuvres by the RK.

Generally, if you compare the two Koreas’ military activity, then the number of military exercises per year (including those that are deployed in the border area between the two countries and always perceived as a possible invasion by the North) the South is far ahead of the North. In addition the RK buys new weapons, including mine clearing equipment and bombs to destroy deep bunkers. These types of weapons are not designed for a defensive war.

The reduction of major military exercises in August 2013 and in February and March 2014 deserves attention, but overall the military activity of its allies has caused a pejorative reaction from the surrounding countries. “We have repeatedly pointed out that the military activity building in Northeast Asia is far beyond the scope of existing threats, and not only does not contribute to improving the situation, but is also fraught with serious consequences for peace and stability in the region,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an official statement. Previously, China has repeatedly made ​​statements calling for the South and North to show restraint, and for Seoul and Washington to reduce the demonstration of “military muscle” in the region.

Then it may be noted that the Republic of Korea and the United States demand that the North take “real steps toward denuclearization”, but refuse to flesh out these steps. “They themselves know what they must do.” This is compounded by the most expansive interpretation of the sanctions, the purpose of which is to deprive the DPRK of access to foreign currency. To strengthen the country’s international isolation, the issue of human rights is brought up. And here it should be noted that Seoul zealously supports the submission to the International Criminal Court of its far-fetched and tendentious report, which we have repeatedly dismantled.

Of course, today there is no open fanning of tensions: there is a quite controversial process in which each side has some who desire to aggravate the situation, and some who would like to see inter-Korean rapprochement. But in the meantime the process of establishing trust looks like a game with only one goal. Seoul expects certain steps from Pyongyang, but at the same time when North Korea takes them, it is declared that it was not sincere, but a diplomatic game designed to mislead Seoul. Since the beginning of 2014 alone the Minister of the Unification of the RK Ryoo Kihl-jae has stated at least 13 times that “we do not believe the North Korean proposals and promises.”

In this case, if officially Seoul is trying to move forward, it is doing so pretty slowly, not wanting to eliminate the irritants that cause a strong negative reaction in Pyongyang and torpedo the potential negotiation process.

It may be noted also that the “trust-building process” is not yet a developed road map. Rather, it is a set of poorly conceptualised slogans, and not detailed recommendations on how trust is to be built and what it consists of.

For example, there is no understanding of what inter-Korean documents should be the basis for cooperation. The RK relies on the Agreement of 1991, but in doing so it ignores the documents of an earlier (1972) and later (2000 and 2007) time, although theoretically the results of the recent leadership summit of the North and the South have at least not been disavowed by the South Korean side. In its turn, North Korea advises to honour previous bilateral agreements, including an agreement signed in 2000, as well as to take steps to reduce military tensions.

Of course, we understand that it is one thing to talk about the need for trust, and quite another to really do something in this direction. Once again, we should remember that even if she wanted to launch a working system of inter-Korean cooperation, Park Geun-hye is not fully independent in either foreign or domestic politics. South Korea is an ally of the United States and often votes as demanded by its “overlord”, joining the other representatives in the same camp. In this context, inter-Korean trust is contrary to the plans of those who would like to see the DPRK firmly seated in the niche of a “threat to peace”, which justifies the corresponding activity of the United States and its satellites.

In this case, Park Geun-hye is not seated firmly enough in the presidential chair to take such a radical and decisive action without the risk of “rocking the boat”. The president has to take into account her unstable position between left and right. For some, she isn’t tough enough, but for others she is the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee, who in the minds of the left firmly occupies a niche of Stalin’s replica.

And so we, on the one hand, should welcome attempts to break the ice of mistrust, but on the other, should distinguish mere statements from real steps and when possible push the situation so that both sides move towards each other in the name of reducing regional tensions.

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, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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