29.12.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Talks Between the Leaders of North and South Korea

4534534534534The 1st round of talks between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea took place from December 11 to December 12 in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The discussions between the two Korean countries were held pursuant to the exacerbation of relations in August 2015, when as part of the solution to the predicament, high-level negotiations were arranged along with a meeting for separated families. The latter, as there are few people of such age still alive, is an important, yet mostly ceremonial event.

Consequently, a lot was expected from the negotiations, due to them being carried out at the relatively high level of vice ministers. The South was represented by the Vice Minister of Unification (the office responsible for inter-Korean affairs) Hwang Boo Gi, while the North was represented by Vice-Director of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, Jon Jong-Su.

However, the talks ended up with no visible results, and not even a final statement has been made public. In addition, there was no date appointed for the next round of discussions.

While outlining the course of events, the parties stressed different agendas. According to North Korea, the failure of the talks occurred “because of incorrect positions and approaches by the South”, that was expressed in reaction to refusal by Seoul to discuss the resumption of South Korean tourists trips to Mount Kumgang in next March or April. At the same time, as the leading North Korean newspaper “Rodong Sinmun” stated, during the course of consultations the representatives of the South constantly “referred to the need to obtain the consent of the United States” and because of such dependency the inter-Korean dialogue becomes meaningless.

According to the South, their side strove to reach a particular agreement on the issue of separated families (desiring to make them regular ones), but the North tied the issue to the necessity of restarting a joint tourist project to Mount Kumgang.  While the Southerners considered this connection as inappropriate, the Northerners refused to have separate discussions at the working level for issues regarding guarantees for tourist safety, or issues related to the ownership of tourist facilities. Additionally, the negotiations were repeatedly interrupted.

Naturally, the Republic of Korea comprehends that at a future convention; North Korea could present any progression of inter-Korean agreements as its own political success, and therefore is not considering the possibility of further negotiations with the North. The Northerners, for their part, have also broken up with standard wording such as “those who are directly responsible for the establishment of inter-Korean relations should be careful of their words and deeds.”

Noticeably, the main stumbling block was the issue of tourist trips that have brought significant amounts of hard currency to the DPRK. The Government of the Republic of Korea considers it necessary to consider the possibility of resuming tourist programs to Mount Kumgang, taking into account the position of the international community on the North Korean issue. First, the Conservatives do not want Pyongyang to get a new source of hard currency amid continuing sanctions. It is not by chance that while answering the question as to whether possible revenues of North Korea from the South Korean tourists are related to Paragraphs of the UN Security Council Resolutions restricting the flow of cash to North Korea, the representative of the Ministry of Unification stated that the main objective of the Resolution Council is to stop programs creating weapons of mass destruction. The Republic of Korea should take this into account in the issue of tourist programs.

On the other hand, let’s recall why this ambitious project was closed some time ago: July 11, 2008, in the tourist area of Kumgang the North Korean military shot a tourist from South Korea named Park Wang-ja. The story is still quite unclear, as this 50-year-old woman with poor vision was seen and shot in a restricted zone and by a North Korean guard after an attempt to get on the territory of the guarded object. Mass media from Republic of Korea presented this case as a cold-blooded murder, although it is not clear what caused this elderly woman to put on her best dress, and at 5 a.m. go away from the paved route without noticing or ignoring the warning signal (the author saw several interpretations of this: from provocation to a suicide attempt).

North Korea obviously has rejected the proposition for a joint investigation of the incident, and although ethically it resembles murder, from a formal point of view the guard was justified in his actions and did not violate any statutes. In spite of this, the Southerners both organized an active propaganda campaign, and began to demand a public apology from the North, which according to the Far East traditions mean not just an expression of regret over the incident, but an admission of guilt, and therefore, the willingness to pay for it. As a result, the tourism project virtually ceased to exist.

Since then, the Republic of Korea has repeatedly raised the question of guarantees for the safety of tourists visiting the Resort. Although the North officially apologized for the incident and provided the appropriate guarantees in 2009, the South insists “the problem remains unsolved.”

All in all, I would like to remind readers that there should be several requirements met in order for such negotiations to succeed. There needs be a concrete subject of negotiations, a real desire of the parties to compromise and a confidence that the decisions made by the end will be implemented and not fall between the cracks. Currently, however, neither the North nor even more so the South, possess any genuine desire to negotiate due to numerous complex domestic political reasons. In the end, the negotiations are partly conducted simply to continue the process of creating closer relations, and in order for each party to show the desire to communicate.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

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