10.06.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea’s Refusal to Engage in Dialogue on Military Matters and the Reality

4464565556On May 23, the Republic of Korea officially rejected the North’s proposal that the South respond to Kim Jong-un’s announcement of possible inter-Korean military negotiations. Seoul’s official response stated that the North should take clear steps to show its willingness to nuclear disarmament before the start of negotiations. A representative of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense reported, that Seoul expressed its regret that Pyongyang had proposed holding negotiations without a mention of the issue of its nuclear program. He emphasised that Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament should be the top priority of inter-Korean dialogue. Pyongyang received this response via the military hot line between ministries. Moon Sung-keun stressed that the North should through real actions confirm its readiness to embark upon denuclearisation if it really strives for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Thus, Seoul confirmed that it has no intention of altering its position in terms of inter-Korean relations and believes the North’s proposal to be insincere propaganda, “attempts to talk about peace after military provocations are one of Pyongyang’s typical tactics.”

It was simultaneously made clear that inter-Korean non-governmental exchanges are currently considered unacceptable. This was announced by a representative of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, Chong Jung-hee, who commented on the preparation being undertaken by the South’s civil organisations for the joint event with the North to mark the 16th anniversary of the North–South Joint Declaration of 15 June 2000. In his words, the South Korean government intends to continue giving humanitarian aid to disadvantaged social groups in the North; however, the exact moment when the support will be resumed and its volume will be defined at a later date.

Meanwhile, what exactly did North Korea propose? On May 20, the National Defence Commission of North Korea sent Seoul an official letter stating its proposal to hold inter-Korean military negotiations. According to KCNA, the North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed Forces proposed holding a working meeting in order to prepare for fully-fledged negotiations. Pyongyang proposed discussing issues related to the threat of a potential military conflict and taking practical steps for the establishment of a atmosphere of trust between the armies of the two sides.

The next day, National Defense Commission of North Korea sent the South Korean Ministry of Defense a letter with the proposal to hold working meetings at the end of May, and on May 22, the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea requested that the South promptly agree to its proposal.

This conflict clearly highlights several trends. Firstly, it is more or less clear which side tried, at the very least, to propose outwardly-appearing constructive proposals. According to the information that the author has, “practical steps to establish an atmosphere of trust between the armies of the two sides” is, let’s say, the installation of a hot line for the exchange of urgent information, which helps prevent unwanted incidents like the “Pig War” Against the backdrop of the escalating situation, it was exactly that which deterred the potential conflict, when, during South Korean military exercises, North Korea was accidentally caught in gunfire. Back then, the South immediately announced to the North over the loudspeakers that it had been accidental gunfire and as a result, there was no response from the North. However, the hot line is more convenient method than shouting over loudspeakers.

Of course, not all North Korean proposals can be considered constructive. For example, the demands to put an end to American-South Korean manoeuvres were far from it. It would undoubtedly bring about a detente, but for the moment, each side decides for itself to what extent it will hold military manoeuvres. Therefore, both the North and the South can perfect their simulated takeovers of the enemy’s capital or use a picture of the leader of the “other” Korea as target practice (with the South engaging in this to a greater extent). It’s unpleasant, but there is nothing to be done about it.

Yet the proposal to establish a hot line can’t be considered empty rhetoric but rather a set of minimum measures to foster trust, which, if developed, could truly go a long way in eliminating the tension between the two Koreas. But this is an important detail that destroys the image of North Korea, which famously “behaves in an extremely non-constructive manner and solely lays out demagogic demands.”

It is South Korea’s refusal and its accusation of “insincerity” (which any, even the most constructive proposal can be accused of) and demands to resume dialogue and denuclearisation that can be seen as empty rhetoric to a greater extent. However, if we look a little closer, we discover that every constructive North Korean proposal over the years that Seoul doesn’t see as a step towards capitulation, is dismissed by the South Korean authorities with the formulaic response: “we don’t believe you, you are not sincere enough”. Meanwhile, all this is sometimes connected with conversations about “the paranoia of Pyongyang’s regime” that doesn’t react to South Korea’s constructive ideas for some reason.

However, this example of double standards is not the most important lesson to be taken from this episode. What is more significant here is the reason for this Korean lack of constructiveness. And the reason is that, after the United States and South Korea led the sanctions campaign against the North, South Korean propagandist analysts began to convince the world that the tough measures had already begun to have an effect. See! North Korea is on the verge of starvation! There are signs of deterioration in the economic situation owing to the sanctions, and, therefore, we will soon witness an Euromaidan-style uprising in Pyongyang! It doesn’t matter that according to Pyongyang, the negative effects of sanctions have hardly been felt and the real effect of any sanctions only ever starts a year of so later, and even then, not always. Seoul assumes that “Pyongyang is feeling the effects of sanctions thus deciding to embark on inter-Korean dialogue in an attempt to come out of isolation”.

But, let’s remember what reaction certain “liberal experts” had concerning the introduction of sanctions against Russia: Similarly, it was predicted that Russia would experience an immediate and sharp decline, a drastic decline in living standards, a repeat of 1989-1990 and an inevitable Euromaidan-style uprising in winter of 2016. Of course, Russia has had some problems, but the rest never materialised.

By painting a similar picture for North Korea, South Korea’s propagandists have managed to convince themselves first and foremost and then their bosses, who, it seems, are entirely confident that North Korea is living out its last months brought about by the heavy blow of sanctions, and thus their proposals are desperate attempts to string out the downfall of the regime.

Unfortunately, the more conservative analysts in Seoul are willing to interpret any steps that Pyongyang takes as a sign of its imminent demise. In this way they are reminiscent of mediaeval witch-hunters who also used any action by the accused as hard evidence of their guilt. This witch is ugly – she paid off the devil with her beauty to gain her powers. This witch is beautiful – she gained her beauty from the devil to deceive people. This witch is rich – the devil taught her to seek out treasures. This witch is poor – she spent all her money on savage rituals. Even if the witch died during her inquisition, thus proving herself innocent, it was actually the devil killing off her body so her soul wouldn’t be saved.

The problem here is the same – a similar picture can turn out to be far-removed from reality, and lead to incredibly disastrous consequences, partly due to what the author calls “cartoon reality.”

This is one of the consequences of the general crisis in competence, when, instead of serious study of its potential enemies, who are, in fact, partners, analysts and experts (who lack the desire or ability to conduct this analysis) prefer to propagate a certain image that has its own internal logic and gradually substitutes reality.

Figuratively speaking, imagine that in the run-up to a hypothetical conflict between Russia and the United States, flag-waving patriotic experts start elaborating plans for war, based not on the real potential of America, but from its superficial image. And their opponents in the United States have fallen for the propaganda that depicts the bloodthirsty Kremlin regime and believe that any man-made disaster or accident can be immediately traced back to Putin, especially since the penchant for conspiracy can put forward entirely insane, but internally logical versions of why Moscow did what it did.

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


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