05.09.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the Inter-Korean talks of August 2015

56456332222The author’s previous article finished on “a cliffhanger”, but there is still no definite clarity in the resolution of this phase of the inter-Korean aggravation to this day, despite the fact that the talks in Panmunjom closed with some success, with each party being able to call itself the winner.

We can immediately see that the talks were very serious in terms of the level of representation. Representatives of the South included Presidential Advisor on National Security Affairs Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Hong Yong-Pyo. The truth is, we must remember that the South Korean former Minister of Defense, Kim Kwan-jin, was one of the most influential hard-liners, and his appointment to the post in some ways is a tactical move on the part of Park Geun-hye, thus depriving him of direct contact with the troops.

The North was represented by the head of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (in effect, the chief curator of inter-Korean relations), Kim Yang-gon, and Vice-Marshall of the North Korean Army, Hwang Pyong So, Director of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Political Department (GPD). In North Korea, this position is more important than that of the Minister of Defence.

The two sides simultaneously flexed their muscles and prepared for “Plan B”, just in case. The State Security Department checked 23,000 shelters and other state security buildings. Four US F-16 and four South Korean F-15K fighter jets flew over South Korea demonstrating their readiness to respond to any threats.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Choi Yoon-Hee, and his American partner, Martin Dempsey, agreed on “the response to any new provocations from North Korea”. As reported by Yonhap, the United States expressed their readiness to provide any assistance if necessary, and a spokesman for the Secretary of State for East Asian and the Pacific Affairs Gabriel Fries noted that “the United States’ promise to defend South Korea is sacrosanct.” Moreover, new information came to light that South Korea is considering placing a US strategic bomber B-52 Stratofortress on its territory, carrying massive ordnance penetrator (MOP) bombs, as well as a US Navy submarine with nuclear weapons on board.

However, it can be said that the tone of the US Representatives was quieter than usual. Neither Obama nor Kerry made anti-Pyongyang statements. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon also called upon Pyongyang and Seoul to resist making any moves that may hinder dialogue.

The North’s response was to roll out 76 mm divisional guns on the border of the Demilitarized Zone. About 50 of 77 submarines with North Korean weapons were deployed to sea. However, we must remember that most of these boats are tiny, suitable mainly for the transportation of groups of infiltrators, but not nuclear missile, as an unprepared reader might think.

As the negotiations took place, only the fragmentary data which was reported to a TASS correspondent by a government source in Seoul was available. The delegates spent most of the time agreeing their positions with their leadership on the phone.

Nevertheless, such long negotiations (a total of 43 hours) were a good sign in themselves – a sign that neither side saw the talks as nothing more than a ploy to distract attention or justify future actions. Both sides really attempted negotiations. Otherwise they would have pointedly slammed the door long ago: We did everything possible to establish a dialogue, but the villains on the other side showed their complete inability to negotiate, so that leaves us with only the bomb.

So here is a round-up of the six points, after which each side was ready to declare victory.

1. A decision was made to organise talks in Seoul and Pyongyang in the near future to discuss other issues relating to inter-Korean relations and to develop a dialogue in various fields “to improve the North-South relations.” This might be either recognition that there is no alternative to a political, diplomatic way to solve the problem, or a ritual and routine phrase, which is followed not by serious talk, but by purely formal actions. The author hopes that the hotline that allows each side to inform the other of emergency situations will be restored.

2. The North expressed its “regret” regarding an incident in the Demilitarized Zone and promised to take measures to prevent a recurrence of provocations in the future. What’s important here, is that this is really just regret (we share your grief) and not an apology (we acknowledge our involvement and wrong-doing and are willing to actively repent). Thus North Korea saved face.

3. In response, South Korea has committed to stop its propaganda broadcasts to the North, but only so long as there are no more “abnormal events.” This means that should the North continue its provocations, the South could resume broadcasting propaganda. So South Korea saved face and took into account the president’s statement that propaganda broadcasts would stop only after the North Korean authorities apologised: they say, we have not abandoned the idea, but have just temporarily turned off the loudspeakers until the next provocation.

4. North Korea is cancelling its “paramilitary” position (the bringing of all troops to full combat readiness for operations under martial law), and mini-submarines returned to base. The South will also reduce its level of combat-readiness correspondingly. For both sides it’s clear: the threat of war has passed.

5. Both sides agreed to continue working on organising meetings between separated families. To this end, it has been decided to hold a working meeting of representatives of the Red Cross Societies of the North and South in early September. Considering how much time has passed and how few remain to whom this point is really important, this event is more of ceremonial value, but looks good in the eyes of the world.

6. The South and the North have agreed to strengthen cooperation on a non-governmental level. This also costs nothing for the authorities. Again, they have agreed to strengthen ties, but what the results will be only time will tell.

The current negotiations are a step forward, made after a crisis that was a step back. Therefore, it is more important, what the next step will be.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”