Aidan Foster-Carter is an honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds. He is also a freelance analyst and consultant: covering the politics and economics of both South and North Korea for, amongst others, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Oxford Analytica, and BBC World Service. Between 1991 and 1997 he lectured on sociology at the universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Leeds. A prolific writer on and frequent visitor to the Korean Peninsula, he has lectured on Korean and kindred topics to varied audiences in 20 countries on every continent. He studied Classics at Eton, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College Oxford, and Sociology at Hull.
Articles by Aidan Foster-Carter
The first four months of 2017 have been a momentous and tumultuous period for Korea. As of mid-May, the peninsula remains in a state of high anxiety and no little tension. A crisis? Maybe. Yet without counseling complacency, recent history suggests that that term tends to be over-applied to this part of the world’s recurring episodes of tension: amply chronicled down the years (for the present century) in successive issues of Comparative Connections.
The reasons for this latest bout of tension are partly local but most global, or more precisely trans-Pacific. The local causes derive from both Koreas, if as usual mainly the North. During the past four months as in the previous five years, Kim Jong Un’s regime has shown little sign of a wish to lower tensions, mend fences, or even pursue normal relations with other states, friend or foe. Now in his sixth year in power, the third Kim remains unique as a 21st-century leader who in this era of globalization – and despite his own years of schooling in Europe – has neither ventured abroad nor met any other head of state or government, even on his home turf. The DPRK’s boasts of self-reliance may be mendacious on the economic front, where (as widely canvassed) Chinese sustenance remains vital. Yet diplomatically it does indeed stand alone; the more so as Pyongyang has begun bombarding even Beijing with the aggressive insults long hurled by Pyongyang at Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. Kim seems to share the stance of Millwall FC, a notoriously ‘hard’ London soccer club whose fans chant: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” His father and grandfather were more subtle, at least in not picking fights Bruce Lee-style with all comers simultaneously. But just as success has long eluded Millwall, showing the finger to everyone can hardly work for Kim Jong Un long-term.
It is not just words that North Korea lobs. This Kim has markedly accelerated the DPRK’s development of both nuclear weapons – an unprecedented two tests in 2016, after three in the decade from 2006 – and the ballistic missiles (BM) that might one day carry them. True to form, the first four months of 2017 saw half a dozen BM tests, not all successful. Yet contra many predictions, Kim has not (so far) marked the recent transitions of political power in two of his main foes – Washington first, and now Seoul too – with a nuclear test; unlike in May 2009 when Barack Obama faced that challenge, or February 2013 when a nuclear blast greeted both the re-elected Obama and the incoming Park Geun-hye. Still, with most of 2017 to go, it might be premature to seek to explain what may be a temporary non-event.
South Korea’s hardline response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests earlier in the year, which led to a complete severing of all inter-Korean contact, meant there was effectively no relationship between the two Koreas in final months of 2016. With the stalemate in relations coupled with the political turmoil in both Washington and Seoul, Aidan Foster-Carter provides his analysis to help understand how we got here by looking back and, even more importantly, looking forward. While North Korea watches and waits, there is a worrying power vacuum in Seoul in the wake of “ChoiSunsil-gate.” The next move largely depends on how South Korea responds to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. [Editors]
The middle four months of 2016 were among the bleakest for inter-Korean relations in the 15 years this writer has been covering that often rebarbative relationship for Comparative Connections. There have been numerous fiery threats from Pyongyang, extreme even by their own standards. An accelerated flurry of ballistic missile launches, followed by North Korea’s second nuclear test this year, raised fears that Kim Jong Un was speeding up development of his strike capacity. As of now the Koreas are not talking to each other, only at each other. North Korea did make a few new proposals for dialogue, though it can hardly have expected them to be taken seriously, given the tone and content of most of its other statements and actions. For South Korea, as for all North Korea’s interlocutors, the Kim Jong Un factor adds an extra layer of anxiety to the already complex and concerning challenges posed by the DPRK. Given the latest Kim’s youth, he could be around for decades, despite wishful thinking to the contrary.
North Korea’s decision to start the new year with its fourth nuclear test guaranteed a downturn in inter-Korean ties. Its successful satellite launch in early February, which also served as a partial ballistic missile test, was the last straw for South Korea, which appeared to finally run out of patience. On Feb. 10 President Park announced the suspension – but in all probability, permanent closure – of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): the last surviving North-South joint venture from the “Sunshine” Era of engagement. But, parliamentary elections in April saw a rebuff for Park’s conservative ruling Saenuri Party. This increases the center-left’s chances of regaining the Blue House in late 2017 and a return of some form of outreach to Pyongyang. Right now it is sunset for “Sunshine” on the Peninsula, but the sun may yet rise again. Never say never in Korea.
2016 in Korea began with a bang. Though unlikely to be the hydrogen bomb it claims, North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 makes certain that inter-Korean ties will not get better any time soon. The last four months of 2015 saw disappointingly little progress on the six-point accord reached in late August to improve relations. The sole substantial outcome was a fresh round of reunions of separated families. However, no further reunions have been arranged or even discussed. Civilian exchanges did pick up to a degree, but this remained fairly light traffic, and wholly one-way; no North Koreans were reported as visiting the South. Even though the August accord specified holding high-level talks “at an early date,” such talks did not take place until December, and then only between vice ministers. It was hard to be optimistic that 2016 would prove any better, even before the DPRK detonation exploded such slim hope as might have remained.
Mid-2015 saw the two Koreas hit the headlines again, for the usual depressing reasons. To be exact, it was a hot August politically on the peninsula; with hostilities – mostly rhetorical, but shots were fired – cranked up to a degree not seen since the spring of 2013. Before that, three months of bickering during May through July destroyed the “late spring blossoms” which our previous report had foolishly thought to discern in bud. Having been thus wrongfooted (not for the first time), although hope springs eternal, caution seems advisable as to the prospects for and sustainability of the welcome new outbreak of peace which North and South Korea currently purport to have snatched from what so recently had looked like the brink of war.
The first four months of 2015 were neither active nor positive for relations between South and North Korea. Initial hints on both sides of potential readiness for a summit came to naught, being dissipated in recriminations over a drearily familiar list of obstacles. So we shall focus on the main events, such as they were, and try to be forward-looking. Topics covered include the military exercises; a revealing memoir by Lee Myung-bak about his presidency; and a potentially serious row about wages at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last inter-Korean joint venture still in operation. We conclude with new hope of a thaw as of early May, which could yet be dashed as so often before.
As so often in inter-Korean relations, the final four months of 2014 proved a mixed bag. Despite several advance tantrums, North Korea sent a full sports squad to compete in the 17th Asian Games (Asiad) held in Incheon. Better yet, three top DPRK leaders suddenly showed up at the closing ceremony and the two Koreas agreed to hold high-level talks. Then the let-down: Pyongyang added unacceptable conditions so the talks were not held and relations reverted to the usual bickering, sniping, and blame games. In the process, Seoul seemed to pass up several opportunities to engage senior leaders from the North. The turn of the year brought fresh hope as both Koreas unexpectedly raised the possibility of high-level meetings, but the issue of preconditions is percolating below the surface.
By one measure, mid-2014 was a period of progress in inter-Korean relations as the tirades and insults hurled from Pyongyang at Seoul and President Park Geun-hye began tapering off in late May. By the end of August, there were hints of hope for improving relations. First, there was an agreement to have athletes from the North participate in the 17th Asian Games in Incheon in late September, although not without some accusations of bad faith in the process. Further, after several rather clumsy attempts by both sides at outlining a mutually acceptable framework for North-South cooperation, there were initial signals that they may be getting close to finding a way to get past the “May 24 sanctions,” which have been in place since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010.
The first third of 2014 was a peculiar time for inter-Korean relations. In the past, months could go by when nothing much happened between the two Koreas. This was not like that as these four months were eventful, but also frustrating. Much was said and done, yet nothing lasting was achieved – except for a single round of family reunions. As of now, inter-Korean ties appear to be going backward and are mired in recrimination, with the North plumbing new depths of foul language and personal insult toward President Park Geun-hye. This reflects frustration in Pyongyang as to what Park really stands for or hopes to accomplish on the North-South front. Her signals in this area are more than a little mixed, but then Kim Jong Un is even harder to read in terms of policy and strategy.