07.02.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Conversations between North Korea and South Korea have come to a dead end

435345345345An earlier article written in the wake of the fourth series of nuclear-weapon testing by North Koreans covered China’s response to those tests. However, taking into account today’s growing confrontation between China and the USA, the Chinese government didn’t demonstrate such a hard-line response as had been expected. It was, however, South Korea who displayed a violent reaction: Park Geun-hye’s office made a clear statement suggesting that the strategy of six-party talks with the North Koreans be abandoned.

On January, 22nd Park Geun-hye, the President of South Korea, emphasized in her speech that the global community should show Pyongyang their clear and well-defined response. Among other things, this includes having the six-party talks with only five participants, which means inviting no representatives from North Korea. It’s been already eight years since the six-party talks regarding the nuclear weapons in North Korea took place last, and since no progress was made till today, the question arises – does this interaction strategy work at all?

Park Geun-hye urged the associated government agencies to do their utmost to proceed with feedback which should include not only strict and effective sanctions, but additional measures initiated by concerned parties. At this point, Park Geun-hye accentuated the key role of China and expressed the hope that Beijing would understand how bad the political escalation in this region can be. She also emphasized the importance of investing efforts into the reunion of South and North Korea which is the final solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

Following the President’s statement Khon Young-Pyo, the Head of the Korean Ministry of Reunification, said that the relations between South and North Korea would be re-assessed taking into consideration the recent nuclear-weapons test: his Ministry was going to put an emphasis on the denuclearization of North Korea and reducing the military tension on the Korean Peninsula. A special working group will be established within the Ministry to address the Pyongyang nuclear problem. This group will develop policies and measures to resolve the issue.

On top of that, the Ministry of Reunification will continue building trusting relations with North Korea and contribute to the development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) giving priority to the safety of citizens. It’s noteworthy that despite the gossip regarding the KIC’s up-coming closure, most of the South Korean skilled staff support the idea that KIC should keep its status quo.

The efforts will go on to solve the problem of ‘disunited families’, more support will be given to North Korean defectors born in China and other countries. Moreover, as part of the reunion strategy, the authorities intend to continue with educational and cultural events to promote ‘the spirit of unity among the Korean people’.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also announced their major goal for 2016: to find a way of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue by intensifying the foreign political pressure on Pyongyang. This is also declared in the working report prepared by this agency: “Measures against the North Korean incitements and the policy of peaceful reunion”. The report was presented to the President on January, 22nd. These ‘measures’ include not only penalties initiated by the UN Security Council, but also counter measures taken by some concerned states. Besides that, efforts will continue to improve international cooperation in addressing the human rights problem and to support three-party negotiation platforms: the USA, South Korea and China, as well as the USA, South Korea and Japan.

As some Russian experts justly notice, “Seoul’s policy in respect of Pyongyang can be described now as abandoning dialogue in favour of penalties, total pressure and leaving North Korea out of all negotiations’. As the President of South Korea mentioned, ‘we should not rush to sit at the negotiation table as soon as possible’.

The same is true for China. As the President’s press-secretary Jeon Young Kook announced on Thursday, South Korea will focus on involving Beijing into measures against North Korea. Reportedly, South Korean authorities are now trying to succeed where John Kerry failed. However, China is holding to the same stance and is not accepting any suggestions from the US and South Korean parties.

By making such statements, the South Korean authorities are eager to show the domestic audience to a greater extent than the worldwide community (the US did support the idea of having five-party talks on the nuclear issue, of course) that they are taking the most vigorous measures to withstand the North Korean incitements. They do want to demonstrate that their policy is not just following-up, but a standalone strategy which is sure to ‘give the North Koreans hell’. That is the way that Park Geun-hye fortifies her position inside the country at a time when the conservative forces are breaking forward.

It looks like that in this foreign and domestic political environment the President is squinting towards ‘the right-wing sector’ simply because she has no choice. Park Geun-hye failed to build interaction with the left-wing parties, because they are opposed to any dialogue. Any initiatives of the ruling office (whoever the author is) are asserted as purely hers leading to the President’s demonization. On top of that she suffers from rather unpleasant personal accusations and criticism from both South Korean left-wing politicians and North Koreans who do not mince their words (which is clearly seen from their agitation leaflets and caricatures). While in South Korea this mocking style is common mostly for non-public organizations who produce leaflets for distribution in North Korea, the ‘northern neighbors’ use this style and language in official sources too, which is quite annoying. This attitude somehow affects the background of political decision-making.

As far as the six-party talks are concerned, after eight years of standstill the general audience will hardly remember why the talks were suspended. Those events are fresh only in the memory of orientalist experts. It was not only North Korea’s fault, moreover, it was to a great extent not entirely North Korea’s fault. The talks were frozen just when the conservative political forces in South Korea came into office. Previously, South Korea together with Russia and China had been attempting to get the USA and North Korea sitting at the negotiation table. When the cold war veterans took over, they held on to a more radical stance than the Americans, so the negotiation process stopped.

However, in the author’s opinion, this strategy is counter-productive. First, pressure is only effective up to a certain limit. Also abandoning dialogues, sanctions and ‘arms brandishing’ are unlikely to force Pyongyang to do what Seoul wants. It will more likely cause an escalation of conflict, because North Korea’s response to any tough actions is usually the same tough actions. Reportedly, there are rumors about a new missile launch.

Second, the international situation has changed. In these conditions it is better to have North Korea as a co-belligerent, than as an annoying neighbor whose actions jeopardize the world’s safety. Beijing would bring the North Koreans to heel if there was a really good opportunity for that, but now China has to choose whether to fight the impertinent North or not. That is the main reason why all attempts from South Korea to get Moscow and Beijing as allies keep failing.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), senior research associate of Korean Studies Center at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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