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North Korea - South Korea


The inter-Korean relationship – like every other relationship with North Korea following the DPRK’s Feb. 10 announcement to indefinitely suspend participation in the Six-Party Talks – remains on hold this quarter. Although there is no chance to speak with North Korea officially in either a multilateral or bilateral setting, there are lots of opportunities in South Korea to talk about how to fashion more opportunities to pursue one-sided reconciliation with the North.  There is also lots of self-criticism about how South Korea can be a better partner to its brothers in Pyongyang, despite ample evidence that brothers in Pyongyang are unwilling to provide support or even to take simple actions that might lead to more South Korean largesse. This quarter, Pyongyang’s begrudging attitude toward South Korean assistance was evident in its reaction to South Korean offers of help during the Avian flu emergency in North Korea, its refusal to accept some types of assistance in the Kaesong Industrial Zone, and its demand that South Korea expand its annual donation of fertilizer to the DPRK from 200,000 tons to 500,000 tons.

 

As the second half of 2005 begins, the prospects for inter-Korean relations appear more propitious than they have for at least a year. Not only has Pyongyang ended its wholly unreasonable boycott of most forums of North-South dialogue created after the June 2000 Pyongyang summit, but it has agreed to deepen and extend these in significant ways. If – always a big if – a 12-point joint statement signed in Seoul on June 23 is fully adhered to, then the summer and fall will see a busy calendar of meetings. Besides such familiar fora as ministerial talks (already resumed), the joint economic committee, and family reunions, there are to be military talks – but at remote Mt. Paekdu, of all places – plus new panels on cooperation in farming and fisheries. North Korea has even agreed to discuss the sensitive issue of persons “missing” (i.e., abducted, or POWs retained) from the Korean War.

So after a gray year, the Sunshine Policy, appropriately for summer, is now blazing brightly. Yet shadows persist. On past form, North Korea might not deliver; it may sulk, or take its bat home again. Above all, there is as yet no assurance that the DPRK will return to the Six-Party Talks. Although movement around this issue gives reasonable optimism that a much-delayed fourth round could be held in July or August, nothing is yet certain.

The two matters are patently linked. Continued nuclear defiance must set limits to how far Sunshine can go; though earlier fears of nuclear tests seem to have receded, any nuclear escalation would surely force Seoul to pull back. How to finesse the conditionalities here threatens in any case to be contentious, especially between a South Korea wedded to carrots and a skeptical U.S., which (at least rhetorically) would not rule out the stick.

As the humid Korean summer yields to the crisp beauty of autumn, inter-Korean ties have never been better – or at least bigger. As if to compensate for the lost year from mid-2004 to mid-2005, when Pyongyang for no good reason eschewed official contacts with Seoul, the past quarter has indeed seen, as we predicted last time, a packed calendar of meetings: hardly a day went by without one. Moreover, this intense intercourse looks set to continue.

Does quantity mean quality? As ever, some of these encounters were more formalistic than substantive. Nor has North Korea yet delivered all that it has promised – much less all that South Korea would like. Nonetheless, economic progress in particular seems to be moving at last toward sustained cooperation. Security issues are more problematic: while Six-Party Talks on the nuclear issue finally agreed on principles in September, both the interpretation and realization of this accord promise to be thorny. Seoul’s mediating role, while welcome at one level, also raised questions about how far inter-Korean progress was being made at the expense of the ROK’s strained alliance with the U.S. or its rocky relations with Japan.

In general the last quarter of 2005 brought even less joy to the world from North Korea than usual. September’s euphoria over a hard-won agreement of principles at the Six-Party Talks soon dissolved in wrangling, and as of early 2006 this on-off dialogue again looks to be off. Elsewhere, the DPRK abruptly told those who had generously fed it for a decade that humanitarian aid was no longer needed, emboldened, critics claimed, by half a million tons of rice sent by South Korea (ditto China) with minimal monitoring.

Amid this generally worsening picture, unlike in the recent past (e.g., mid-2004 – mid-2005) Pyongyang did not suspend links with Seoul, yet neither did it rush to expedite them. By the numbers, North-South intercourse hit new records in 2005: inter-Korean trade topped $1 billion, while three times more Southern visitors headed North than in 2004. Yet frustration continued in the South over Northern slowness to implement matters nominally agreed on earlier, ranging from military talks to the delayed opening of the two new cross-border railways – physically ready, but with no sign that trains will run any time soon. But the Kaesong industrial zone continued to grow, and North Korea partially patched up what threatened to be a damaging row (of its own making) with its main benefactor, Hyundai.

The first quarter of 2006 saw inter-Korean relations brisk, in more senses than one. As the chronology illustrates, both the variety and density of interactions testify to ever-growing ties between North and South across a range of activities and on many levels: political and security, economic and business, social and cultural, and more. Rightly or wrongly, no one in Seoul (or at least in the ROK government) appears inclined to let the continuing impasse over the six-party nuclear talks – which have not met since November and show no sign of doing so any time soon – derail or even decelerate burgeoning North-South links.

However, it is not all plain sailing. From the Southern viewpoint, the North is not only reluctant to make concessions, but continues to stall on implementing matters to which it had agreed in outline. There are also quarrels: the past quarter saw several tiffs, and one major row that could have easily proved damaging. In the past any of these might have escalated out of hand, putting all ties on ice for months. That this did not happen is mainly due to the South’s vast reserves of patience, which to critics risks shading into appeasement.

Yet defenders of the Sunshine Policy can point to subtle changes in North Korea’s stance, too. Pyongyang’s noisily extreme rhetoric continues unabated, but its deeds talk louder. At least twice in the past quarter the North showed its displeasure with the South by actions which, if regrettable and uncalled for, were noticeably less extreme than in the past. This more careful calibration suggests a deepening commitment to the relationship as such. A more cynical view is that Kim Jong-il knows not to push the goose too far lest it stop laying golden eggs, in what remains financially and otherwise a very one-sided process.

 

Six years after the first (and only, so far) inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, with its June 15 Joint Declaration ushering in a new era of “Sunshine” from the South toward the North – if not always vice versa – we might be entering a new phase. If multi-faceted exchanges between the ROK and DPRK remain brisk and look largely irreversible, as argued last time (and amply illustrated in the chronologies), this process may be becoming less one-sided.

As the second half of 2006 begins, South Korea is fed up – and is not disguising this behind honeyed words, as so often, for fear of offending Northern sensibilities. Two factors have prompted this new mood. Seoul was furious when in late May the North, at a day’s notice, cancelled an agreed upon long-delayed train test run on the two reconnected crossborder rail tracks, which have been physically ready to roll since last year. Rightly, it dismissed Pyongyang’s excuse of alleged instability in the South as “preposterous.” Coming just a week before key local elections, when the ruling center-left Uri Party of President Roh Moo-hyun was duly hammered by the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP), this was hardly a friendly or timely gesture by Pyongyang toward a government whose critics accuse it of being too generous toward Kim Jong-il, while demanding too little in return.

The result is an overdue outbreak of conditionality. Thus the South has agreed to help the North’s light industry – but only after those train tests. In June, the mood in Seoul hardened further, as fears grew that Dear Leader might be preparing to test-fire a Taepodong long-range missile for the first time since 1998. ROK Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok warned that such a launch would jeopardize further Southern aid. At a point where only a third of the 450,000 tons of fertilizer that the DPRK has asked for this year has been agreed and delivered, and with no agreement yet in place to send the usual 500,000 tons of rice, this is not a threat that Kim Jong-il can afford to take lightly.

Rarely has the arbitrary time unit of a quarter so neatly framed real events as on the Korean Peninsula these past three months. For South Korea, like all of Pyongyang’s other interlocutors, the third quarter of 2006 was topped and tailed by two ominous bookends. It began with, and was dominated by, the seven missiles (including a long-range Taepodong-2) which North Korea test-fired on the Fourth of July, U.S. time (locally, early July 5). Inevitably this rude gesture of defiance cast a large shadow, at least partially and temporarily, on the “Sunshine” policy of engagement and outreach that Seoul has pursued for the past nine years. At that stage it was too early to tell whether this was just a temporary hiccup, or marked a lasting sea-change in the balance and thrust of the ROK’s Nordpolitik.

For reasons hard to fathom, Kim Jong-il chose to settle that question in the negative by ending the quarter with a far graver threat. After weeks of rumors of preparations spotted by spy satellites, on Oct. 3 North Korea for the first time gave notice of its intention to conduct a nuclear test. Still, some analysts hoped that this might be just a sharp negotiating ploy, as arguably the missile tests were: intended to break almost a year’s stalemate in the suspended Six-Party Talks and jolt the U.S. and others into concessions on financial sanctions. Less than a week later, such hopes were dashed Oct. 9, when Pyongyang announced, with typical pride, that it had carried out its first nuclear test. Outside opinion seems to agree, though at this writing it is unclear whether it was completely successful. The implications of this are considered at the end of this article.

July’s missile launch had put most of the now quite dense network of regular official inter-Korean contacts on ice for late summer and early fall. Seoul struggled to strike a balance between showing its disapproval – and keeping the semblance of a common front with Washington – while seeking to ensure that the overall framework and achievements of Sunshine were not jeopardized. Walking such a tightrope was no easy task, and – as often with the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which now has little more than a year left to run before his successor is elected in December 2007 – some of the specific policy decisions and judgments made thus far appeared questionable.

Events on the Korean Peninsula in the latter half of 2006 exhibited, to quote the poet William Blake, a “fearful symmetry.” Just as the third quarter had been dominated by North Korea’s July 5 launch of seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2, so the final three months of last year were overwhelmingly focused on the momentous and baleful test-firing by the DPRK Oct. 9 of a small nuclear device.

As with the Taepodong, so a fortiori this nuclear test sent the region, the world, and especially Pyongyang’s five interlocutors in the then-stalled Six-Party Talks – the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia – scurrying first to condemn, unanimously, and then to try to devise appropriate countermeasures. Unanimity fast evaporated as familiar policy splits persisted. While Washington and especially a newly assertive Japan sought to punish, Seoul joined Beijing and Moscow in its reluctance to press Pyongyang too hard, for instance, in searching its vessels on the high seas.

To the surprise of some, but in fact quite typically, Kim Jong-il then deigned to return to the Six-Party Talks, which met briefly in mid-December after a hiatus of over a year. No progress was made, and at this writing no date to resume has been fixed. As a new year dawned, with Pyongyang boasting of its new nuclear status – and amid reports that it might be preparing a second nucleat test – it was hard to see a way forward on this crucial issue, despite hopes that the Six-Party Talks would reconvene ere long.

 

For South Korea, as for all North Korea’s interlocutors, dealing with Pyongyang during the first quarter of 2007 was – in a cliché beloved of British soccer commentators – “a game of two halves.” When the new year began, and well into February, most official contacts remained suspended in the wake of last year’s twin shocks: the DPRK’s missile launches in July, followed by its nuclear test in October.

Yet even then there were hopes of an early thaw amid visibly energetic efforts to breathe life into the Six-Party Talks after their resumed session in December ended in failure. On Feb. 13, after appearing close to collapse over North Korea’s large energy demands, this on-off forum finally produced an agreement that – if imperfect – nonetheless looked more comprehensive and detailed than many observers had dared to hope after more than three years of getting nowhere much.

The second quarter of 2007 saw growing momentum in inter-Korean relations. Having picked up speed after the Feb. 13 Six-Party Talks accord, this was hardly derailed by subsequent slippage in deadlines as the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair dragged on and North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor failed to close. Only rice aid was withheld by Seoul, after some havering, pending Pyongyang’s full fulfillment of the Feb. 13 agreement. Even this began to flow by quarter’s end, although Yongbyon remained open; by then South Korea, like the U.S. and other six-party participants, took the North’s cooperation with IAEA inspectors as a sufficient signal of sincere intent to play ball, at least for now.

The quarter thus mainly saw renewal of a by-now familiar range of contacts: assorted talks – ministerial, economic, military, and more – as well as family reunions and visits of various kinds (almost all from South to North rather than vice versa). There were also at least two “firsts”: one much trumpeted, the other less so. Halfway through the quarter, May 17 saw the much-delayed first cross-border trains since tracks were severed during the 1950-53 Korean War. Despite much hoopla in Seoul (noticeably less in Pyongyang), these were only one-off test runs, with no indication of when regular service might begin.

Perhaps more significant, albeit far less reported, was an unprecedented tour of China and Vietnam in late June by a joint inter-Korean business team that looked at ROK firms and the investment situation in both countries. Barely a week later, the two Koreas finally agreed on a project involving raw material supply and mining cooperation. Like the railway test runs, this took two years to come to fruition, hardly what the DPRK calls Chollima speed (a winged horse of Korean myth, like Pegasus). If for real, then with the now established – if still small – Kaesong industrial park this may betoken the start of serious economic partnership between North and South, such as has obtained for almost 20 years now between China and Taiwan. Always assuming no more nuclear derailments.

The main event between the two Koreas in the third quarter of 2007 was, obviously, President Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to Pyongyang. This was the first North-South summit meeting in seven years, and only the second in the 59 years since two rival states were declared in 1948 under respective U.S. and Soviet patronage, each claiming – as they do still, even after a decade of “Sunshine” – to be the sole legitimate government on the peninsula. Originally scheduled for late August, the summit was postponed until early October after North Korea was hit – yet again, and worse than ever – by crippling floods. Strictly, then, it fell outside the third quarter. But it would be perverse to exclude so key an event, especially since anticipation of how it would go dominated August and September.

Moreover, the fact that the summit coincided, almost to the day, with further progress at the Six-Party Talks (SPT) added an extra twist to what, however one evaluates it, was a crucial moment in the tangled history of inter-Korean relations. Time will tell, and we shall have a clearer idea by the year’s end; or maybe not till early 2008, when a new and almost certainly more conservative leader in Seoul – Roh’s successor will be elected Dec. 19, taking office Feb. 25 – must decide how far to accept and implement the eight-point agreement that Roh signed with Kim Jong-il.

To this writer, skeptical like many, this looks a better deal than feared. Despite regrettable if predictable brevity on the nuclear issue, and a deafening silence on human rights, the new agreement, if implemented – always a big proviso with the DPRK – presages the start of serious, large-scale, and wide-ranging inter-Korean economic cooperation. If some critics still find this one-sided – no prizes for guessing who will write the checks – at least now the focus is on solid infrastructure and joint business; it’s not simply aid (much less cash) that Kim Jong-il can use as he pleases, as was too often the case hitherto.

The last quarter of 2007 was significant for inter-Korean relations in two distinct, perhaps even opposite, ways. It began with what is only the second North-South summit ever held, when ROK President Roh Moo-hyun met DPRK leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. No mere symbolic one-off, as many feared, the summit produced a raft of follow-up meetings: between the two sides’ premiers and defense ministers, plus numerous old and new committees and sub-committees dealing with a wide range of specific fields.

Better yet, while not without a political agenda, this many-sided cooperation mostly looked pragmatic and business-like. The result was the most intense and densest interaction so far seen between the two Korean states. Barely a day passed without them meeting somewhere, to deal with one topic or another. In a 62-year history of separation, punctuated in recent decades by several false starts, it appeared that an era of regular, sustained and largely practical intercourse between Seoul and Pyongyang had begun, at long last and irreversibly.

In our judgment that remains the case. Yet as of early 2008 two shadows, potentially dark clouds, threaten to dim this institutionalization of what Kim Dae-jung, its “onlie begetter” a decade ago, famously christened the South’s “Sunshine” policy of engaging the North.

On Dec. 19 South Koreans went to the polls to choose their president for the next five years, through February 2013. The continuity candidate was Chung Dong-young of the pro-government center-left United New Democratic Party (UNDP), who as unification minister met Kim Jong-il in 2005 and is closely identified with “Sunshine.” The Aesopian metaphor has stuck, even though Roh blandly rebranded this as the “policy for peace and prosperity.”

But the voters rejected Chung. By the widest margin ever, they returned the conservative formerly ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to power, after a decade in the wilderness. More specifically they endorsed Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai CEO and ex-mayor of Seoul, nicknamed “bulldozer” for his can-do image. Lee has vowed to review all the Roh government’s recent deals with the North, to demand more reciprocity from Kim Jong-il, and to link aid and other progress to Pyongyang’s nuclear compliance – or lack of it – in the ongoing Six-Party Talks (SPT), involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia.

In fact, other things being equal, the pragmatic Lee – no old cold warrior, more center than right – might find little to quarrel with in his predecessor’s raft of recent agreements with the North, most of which look businesslike and mutually beneficial. But linkage to the SPT is more problematic at this point. The nuclear talks, which made unprecedented progress in 2007 with two landmark agreements and the closure of the DPRK’s Yongbyon reactor site, have hit a bump. Pyongyang’s failure to fulfill its pledge to make a full declaration of all its nuclear activities by the year-end presages problems in 2008. If Kim Jong-il digs his heels in, this will create a dilemma for Lee, who despite being a new broom may not want to lose the momentum recently gained in North-South ties.

The ROK election was fought mainly on domestic issues; it was not primarily a referendum on sunshine. Polls suggest that most South Koreans support engagement with the North, as indeed does Lee Myung-bak. The tricky question now is on what terms, and how concretely to take this forward should the DPRK remain defiant on the nuclear front.

For that matter, the North too must decide what to make of Lee. Having long excoriated the GNP as traitors and pro-U.S. flunkeys, Northern media have been oddly silent since Lee was elected. Instead they reserved such venom for Lee Hoi-chang, the GNP’s losing candidate in 1997 and 2002 who ran this time as an independent conservative, accusing his namesake of being soft on North Korea and generally (much as Margaret Thatcher and her acolytes used to damn more moderate Tories as “wets”). Lee HC’s 15 percent of the vote, while way behind Lee MB’s 49 percent, is a salutary reminder that the old Cold War hard right, which long ruled in Seoul under military dictatorships, is by no means extinct. Or put another way, combining the two Lees means that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of electors voted right of center, while Chung Dong-young garnered just 26 percent for the center-left.

Hence 2008 could go either way. The foundations of unprecedented practical cooperation between the two Koreas may be built on – or, as so often before, be left unfinished or marking time owing to a change in the peninsula’s volatile political weather.

For almost the whole of the first quarter of 2008, official inter-Korean relations were largely suspended in an uneasy limbo. As of late March, that void was the story. Up to a point this was only to be expected. A new conservative leader in Seoul – albeit a pragmatist, or so he tells us – was bound to arouse suspicion in Pyongyang at first. Also, Lee Myung-bak needed some time to settle into office and find his feet.

Still, it was remarkable that this limbo lasted so long. More than three months after Lee’s landslide victory in the ROK presidential elections on Dec. 19, DPRK media – which in the past had no qualms in dubbing Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) as a bunch of pro-U.S. flunkeys and national traitors – had made no direct comment whatsoever on the man Pyongyang has to deal with in Seoul for the next five years. Almost the sole harbinger of what was to come – a tocsin, in retrospect – was a warning snarl in mid-March against raising North Korean human rights issues. One tried to derive some small comfort from this near-silence; at least the North did not condemn Lee a priori and out of hand.

Rarely does the political weather change so abruptly with the calendar as it has in Korea during the past quarter. As we reported in our last issue, North Korea chose April 1 – April Fools’ day – to finally break its long silence on the South’s new leader Lee Myung-bak, who was elected president last December 19 and took office on February 25. With rare restraint, Pyongyang had kept its counsel for several months since Lee – a former mayor of Seoul, ex-Hyundai CEO and self-described pragmatic conservative – was elected president by a large majority on a platform of mending fences with the U.S. and curbing Seoul’s “sunshine” policy of the past decade. Though ready to expand inter-Korean dealings on his own terms – as in his Vision 3000 program, which offered to triple North Korean national income to US$3,000 per head – Lee insisted on linking any increased cooperation to progress on the North’s nuclear disarmament.

Relations between the two Koreas, having already worsened from April when North Korea took umbrage with South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, deteriorated further during the third quarter. This may have been inevitable. In a break from the “sunshine” policy pursued over the past decade by his two liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung (1988-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08), Lee had signaled that henceforth expanded inter-Korean cooperation would depend on progress in denuclearization under the Six-Party Talks (6PT). Not only did this linkage displease Pyongyang in principle, but the current 6PT stalemate and North Korea’s proclaimed restoration of facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear site, have made inter-Korean progress difficult given the Lee administration’s conditionalities.

And yet, and yet. By early July, his popularity plunging barely four months into his five-year term (after the U.S. beef import protests and a series of gaffes), the president formerly known as “bulldozer” was ready to try a different tack. On July 11 he told the new National Assembly – elected in April, but only now convening due to inter-party wrangles – that “full dialogue between the two Koreas must resume.” He also renewed his offer of humanitarian aid.

The final three months of 2008 saw relations between the two Koreas continue to worsen, as they had since South Korean voters in December 2007 elected the conservative Lee Myung-bak as their next president, ending a decade of rule by liberals. Official ties remained frozen as Pyongyang media continued to heap childish insults on Lee. Upping the ante from words to deeds, but also shooting itself in the foot, from December the North placed restrictions on cross-border traffic and expelled most Southerners from the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). But the end of the year brought a possible way forward, with hints from both sides that they are considering a deal where the South would pay for the release of abductees and prisoners of war held by the North. It remains to be seen whether this will fly or how soon the two Koreas can tone down the enmity stoked over the past year. Meanwhile, nongovernmental interaction continues, albeit on a far smaller scale than during the former “Sunshine” policy.

2010 is a year of anniversaries on the Korean Peninsula, many of them miserable. It is the centenary of Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1910, an event unlikely to be much marked on either side of the Sea of No Agreed Name, given how bitter Korean memories remain. This June marks 60 years since a by-then partitioned peninsula erupted into a civil war which technically is not over, since the 1953 Armistice Agreement was never followed by a peace treaty. For South Koreans, April 1960 celebrates the ouster of their authoritarian first leader, Syngman Rhee, in an all too brief democratic interlude before soldiers seized power in Seoul. Twenty years later, May 1980 marks the bloody suppression of a rising against military dictatorship in Gwangju in the southwestern Jeolla region, still the heartland of political opposition in South Korea. Seven years later the generals were forced back to barracks for good – a rare achievement in Asia – and a sometimes fractious democracy has since grown strong roots.

To state what in my country we call the bleedin’ obvious, this was the worst quarter in inter-Korean relations of the near-decade (starting in 2001) that Comparative Connections has been covering this relationship. On the rare occasions when the peninsula makes global headlines, or even more rarely moves markets, it tends not to be good news. Thus it was on May 24-25, when for the first time in many years the world seriously wondered whether the two Koreas might go to war again – almost 60 years after they fatefully did so the first time. Fortunately both backed away from the brink. On closer inspection there was both more and less to this than at first met the eye. But it was a perilous moment; and though it now seems to have passed, it leaves North-South relations in a pit from which no easy exit is apparent. The cause, of course, is the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan on March 26. Yet this did not erupt as a crisis until late May. The course of those two months is fascinating in its own right, and has been under-examined in the welter of comment and controversy. It reveals, we suggest, an odd mix of tactical skill and strategic flailing by Seoul. As of early July, with ROK President Lee Myung-bak still smarting from an unexpected rebuff in local elections a month ago, one must conclude that North Korea’s torpedo scored a bulls-eye. Despite delivering a remarkable economic recovery and chairing the G20, “bulldozer” Lee is now on the back foot: just as Kim Jong-il intended. It was nasty and negative, but it worked. In Pyongyang’s eyes, this counts as a win – even though from any sensible perspective it is a loss for both Koreas, and their relations.

The past quarter in inter-Korean relations might be called the morning after the night before. Tensions over the sunken ROK corvette Cheonan by no means disappeared; the less so since North Korea still denied responsibility, while the South smarted at its failure to convince key powers – China and Russia above all – of Pyongyang’s culpability. The Cheonan incident remains a crime and an obstacle.  Yet hopeful signs are emerging that both sides realize they will have to get past this eventually and that they might as well start now. Among various small initiatives, including flood aid, the quarter ended on a hopeful note with an agreement to hold a fresh round of reunions of separated families in late October.

Ten years have passed since Ralph Cossa first asked me to write for this esteemed journal. Comparative Connections was young then. Launched in mid-1999, then as now its remit was to cover and track East Asia’s key bilateral relationships: with the US and regionally.

At the outset, inter-Korean relations must have seemed too insubstantial to be included. That changed in 2000: the annus mirabilis which saw the South’s then president, Kim Dae-jung, fly to Pyongyang in June and hold the first ever North-South summit meeting with the man who still leads the North, Kim Jong Il. The former, but thankfully not the latter, was awarded the year’s Nobel Peace Prize for this among other achievements.

At the time this seemed, and was, a breakthrough. The summit was not just a one-off photo-op. We did not yet know that money had gone under the table to bring it about. Even so, to write as I did then of “the wholly new phase of regular and substantive inter-Korean dialogue that has ensued – ministerial and defense talks, family reunions, economic deals, transport links, and more” – was not mistaken. Seven years followed in which inter-Korean relations moved forward. Not evenly, not enough, and not reciprocally – but forward, none the less.

Another sentence that I wrote a decade ago, on the broader vista, is painful to reread now:

In a for once happily inapt metaphor, diplomatically speaking the DPRK blazed away on all barrels in all directions during the past year, apparently seeking better ties across the board, both reviving old alliances and embarking on new ones.

And I concluded:

We are in a new phase, which has no pre-written script.  The challenge in 2001 will be for the DPRK to show that its change is more than just cosmetic and tactical by imbuing its new formal ties with substantive content, and above all by moving to address at least some of the many real security concerns of its various interlocutors.

The first four months of 2011 saw no real improvement in relations between the two Koreas. Their sole official contact, military talks in February, broke up in acrimony after two days. A slight easing of South Korea’s aid restrictions in April was in response to dire humanitarian need in the North, and probably does not indicate a wider thaw. As often there was the odd hint of back-channel talks, even about a possible summit – but no suggestion of progress. The obstacles are familiar. Pyongyang’s peace offensive as the year began, with a barrage of offers of seemingly unconditional talks, did not impress Seoul as it failed to deal with what remain two huge stumbling-blocks: the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on March, 26, 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23. The North continues to deny all responsibility for the former, and to insist it was provoked into the latter. In a democracy, and having taken much flak over both incidents, there is no way that ROK President Lee Myung-bak could afford to let either matter go – even if he was so minded, which he manifestly is not. It may be no easier for Kim Jong Il to back down either, in the midst of crafting a delicate succession for his untried third son Kim Jong Un. This appears a recipe for stalemate, perhaps for the rest of Lee’s presidency, which ends in February 2013 – although in Korea surprises are always possible.

Just for once, Comparative Connections’ deadline chimed neatly with events on the Korean Peninsula. Late on the evening of Aug. 30, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, as part of a mini-reshuffle affecting four Cabinet positions, finally replaced his long-term hard-line unification minister, former academic Hyun In-taek. With Lee’s characteristic cronyism, the man nominated to replace Hyun was another of his close advisers – geography professor Yu Woo-ik, once Lee’s chief of staff in the Blue House and latterly ROK ambassador to China.

Despite the usual pro forma insistence that this does not mean any change of policy – Hyun was retained, notionally, as a special adviser on unification – the Seoul press was unanimous that this appointment signals a shift in strategy or tactics toward the North for the final third of Lee’s term of office. Elected Dec. 19, 2007 and in post since Feb. 25, 2008, Lee is restricted to a single five-year term. That stipulation in the Constitution of the Sixth Republic, promulgated with the restoration of democracy in 1987, was meant to prevent any would-be dictators from prolonging their stay in office ad infinitum, as military strongman Park Chung-hee (1961-79) did with his Yushin Constitution in 1972 (the Fourth Republic). But perhaps the democrats went too far. In some ways South Korea’s presidency remains too strong. Thus it is the president who appoints the Cabinet, and except for the prime minister, the National Assembly’s approval is not required. Yet these imperial powers last a mere five years – or in practice less, since the electoral cycle creates its own structural pressures.

In modern media-driven democracies, political campaigning has become quasi-permanent. Thus ROK presidents must struggle to avoid becoming a lame duck as their five years draw toward a close, and attention increasingly shifts to the race to succeed them. Many in Seoul favor a shift to a US-style system: presidential elections every four years instead of five, but permitting a second term so as to avoid the lame duck effect. An added advantage is that this would align presidential elections with parliamentary ones, which are on a separate four-year cycle. Such a change in theory has wide bipartisan support, and now would have been the ideal time to make the shift since next year the two elections almost coincide with parliamentary in April, followed by presidential in December. But bad blood between the two main parties – Lee’s conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP), and the liberal opposition Democrats (DP) – means that it is almost certainly too late now for this time around.

North Korea - South Korea

September — December 2011

A New Era?

No reader of Comparative Connections needs telling that Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader since 1994, died of a heart attack on Dec. 17. (The wider public is something else. The young woman who looks after this writer’s baby had never heard of Korea, much less North Korea, or that anything had happened there. We specialists should never assume too much.)

Kim’s death poses a dilemma. In one sense it changes everything. The DPRK is now sailing into uncharted waters, formally under a greenhorn skipper whose seamanship is untested and unknown – like almost everything else about him, except that during his Swiss schooldays he was a Chicago Bulls fan. To that extent, most of what transpired between the two Koreas during the past four months is already history; it may be no guide to what will unfold now in the era of Kim Jong Un. Yet this is a journal of record as well as analysis, so we shall begin by looking at the way things were, just recently, before focusing on where matters are now.

Covering inter-Korean relations for Comparative Connections has been a roller-coaster ride, given the peninsula’s changeable political weather. Even so, the current state of affairs is unprecedented. Pyongyang has spent the whole of 2012 hurling ever ruder and angrier jibes at ROK President Lee; plumbing the depths even by North Korean standards. In April, KCNA published and trumpeted a set of vicious cartoons that depict Lee as a rat being gorily done to death. From the viewpoint of inter-Korean relations, the past four months essentially saw almost no interaction except this one-sided name-calling. Unsurprisingly Seoul did say a few words in response, which only served to rile Pyongyang more.  Wading through filth is no fun, but duty must be done as we describe and try to interpret North Korea’s slander campaign, which showed ominous signs of escalating from words to deeds. In some obscure way, one intended function may be to boost the callow Kim Jong Un, so we also briefly report his formal accession to the DPRK’s top leadership posts.

There is very little to be said about relations between the two Koreas in the middle four months of 2012. And under a sensible new dispensation granted by this esteemed journal’s editors, I need not pretend otherwise. Usually guilty of over-writing (probably in more senses than one) when there was much to report and comment on, for once this time we shall be brief.

Inter-Korean relations have more than one level. Comparative Connections focuses mainly on “high politics,” i.e., states as actors and their interactions. It is in that sense that this time we have sadly little to report. As regular readers or anyone who follows the peninsula will know, relations between the two Koreas could hardly be worse. In recent months they have hardly interacted at all, though each has engaged in megaphone diplomacy. As always the North’s was shriller and nastier. We analyzed a particularly foul aspect of this in the last issue, and there seems no special merit in dwelling on this again. But there is also “low politics,” meaning interactions by nonstate actors – private citizens, NGOs, traders, and so on – in a range of realms: aid, business, culture, family ties, and more. To a degree, in a situation as tense as Korea, these too are constrained by and take their cue from the state: wholly so in Pyongyang, but not entirely in Seoul. On this level there is more to report, mainly in the chronology. For once it may be advisable to read that before this, to get a sense of the wider picture and detailed fabric of inter-Korean relations at this juncture. Here we pick a few themes. What have the two states been saying to, or at, each other?

Writing as a new year begins it seems apt to look forward as much as back. If the past four months saw little movement on inter-Korean relations, it is hardly surprising. South Korea’s current president (since 2008), Lee Myung-bak, is detested by the North – but he is on the way out. Formally, Lee’s term of office ends on Feb. 25, but the way the electoral cycle works in Seoul – presidents are allowed only a single five-year stint – has rendered him a lame duck for the past year, as attention shifted to the hard-fought race to succeed him. In that contest, despite deep overall ideological rivalries, the one certainty was that Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang will change going forward. Both major candidates, as well as the independent progressive Ahn Cheol-soo, who made much of the running before eventually withdrawing, had promised to end Lee’s hard line and try to mend fences with the North. With her victory, the task of defining that changed policy falls to Park Geun-hye.

In a triumph of hope over experience, our last report ended with the cautious thought that new leaders in the two Koreas, each with a dynastic background, might have “a tacit basis for understanding.” It is early days yet, but so far 2013 has gone in the opposite direction. This was one of those regular periods when storms on the peninsula make headlines around the world, so few readers will need informing of the broad contours of the past few months. The tensions fomented by Pyongyang, which seem to have died down for now, lasted longer – two months – and used more extreme rhetoric than usual. As so often, inter-Korean relations were more a victim than a main driver in all this. But they have suffered tangible damage with the closure, at least for now, of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which had been the last remaining North-South joint venture.

This has been an interesting four months. Pyongyang abruptly changed its tune, demanding the immediate reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex no less peremptorily than it had earlier closed it. Both attitudes were exasperating and hard to explain, but at least the North’s new “peace offensive” offers some hope of a more constructive approach. This also challenged the South, forcing it to put flesh on the bones of President Park’s “trustpolitik” and make hard decisions on two levels: what principles to adopt in dealing with a now partly more pliant North and – on that basis – how to respond on a whole range of immediate concrete issues. This was a steep learning curve, which the new ROK administration mostly handled with a skillful mix of firmness and flexibility – except for one mistaken and avoidable row over protocol, which delayed the rapprochement by a month or so.

The sudden, public, and brutal purge and dispatch of Jang Song Thaek, uncle-by-marriage and erstwhile mentor of Kim Jung Un, sent shock waves around the world, and doubtless inside the DPRK as well. By contrast, inter-Korean relations were mostly undramatic, if also not very satisfactory. In September, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last remaining North-South joint venture, reopened after five months in limbo. Uneven progress since then raises doubts about the North’s sincerity and hence this project’s viability and long-term prospects. Hopes that the KIC’s reopening might usher in a wider thaw were dashed when the North canceled reunions of separated families scheduled for end-September. Meanwhile DPRK media subjected ROK President Park Geun-hye and her government to a barrage of often puerile, petty, and personal sniping. While Park and/or Kim may yet surprise us, overall as 2014 opens the two Koreas seem to be pretty much back to first base and starting over – not for the first time.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Back to Diplomacy in 2017?

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]

Can Moon Restore Sunshine?

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.

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