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North Korea - South Korea


Inter-Korean relations during the past quarter were marked by two major events.  True to form, each pointed in opposite directions.  In August, a contentious visit to Pyongyang by a group of Southern unification activists brought tensions within the ROK over Northern policy to boiling point, leading to the forced resignation of the unification minister and the collapse of the ruling coalition.  But in September, doubtless under pressure from Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang suddenly announced its readiness to resume dialogue with the South, having frozen this for most of the year in reaction to the Bush administration’s initial hostility.  Ministerial talks were duly held in Seoul, and a schedule was set to reopen most of the various tranches of dialogue and cooperation that had been in abeyance – as well as some encouraging new ones.

Our last two articles concentrated on business and civilian links, as an important substratum that has continued – and is probably irreversible – even in the absence of official North-South contacts.  This time the focus reverts to the inter-state level and assesses the prospects for real progress.  Minimally, we are back where we were in February in terms of formally picking up the various strands and projects.  That is positive, but it may not be enough.  The past half-year’s freeze plus Northern provocations did real damage to the incipient peace process: they soured the public mood in South Korea and severely weakened South Korean President Kim Dae-jung politically.

Hence to rebuild the initial post-summit optimism and momentum of a year ago will take more than merely formal meetings.  South Koreans will now demand substantial progress and real reciprocity from the North on concrete issues like reconnecting road and rail links.  Absent that, in little over a year they will vote in – as may happen anyway – a new president who will be less generous than Kim Dae-jung.  The window for North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il is thus closing, with much hinging on whether and when he makes his long delayed visit to Seoul.  And over all this now looms the dark shadow of Sept. 11, although so far the fall-out for Korea looks oddly positive.

A frustrating quarter for inter-Korean relations was an apt, if sad, close to a disappointing year.  Hopes raised by the resumption of official talks in September, with Pyongyang producing a long and seemingly serious list of concrete agenda items, were dashed when the North refused to come to Seoul for future meetings – citing security concerns post Sept. 11.  The South finally accepted North Korea’s Geumgangsan resort as a venue, but talks in November broke up with no agreement: the first time this has happened in the latest era of North-South relations.  Hence there was no progress either on such specifics as trans-DMZ rail/road links, the Kaesong industrial zone, and family reunions.  There was even a brief exchange of gunfire at the DMZ, though this may have been accidental.

Still, the year ended with two glimmers of hope.  With minimal publicity, a Northern team spent a fortnight visiting Southern nuclear facilities under Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) auspices, and Seoul announced the lifting of its state of alert, so removing Pyongyang’s pretext for not talking.  There is thus a fair chance that official dialogue will resume early in 2002. Whether it will get anywhere is another matter.  With ROK President Kim Dae-jung a lame duck in his final year in office, and the U.S. war on terrorism adding new issues like bioweapons to the big pile of bones that Washington may choose to pick with Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has little incentive to yield much to Seoul, except perhaps to get a better deal than is likely from the next occupant of the Blue House, whoever that may be.  But as with the missile deal that it missed with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea might now have left it too late.

First, a confession.  Because of travel commitments, this article was first drafted in mid-March.  Its tone thus reflects the chill in inter-Korean ties at that time.  But I did note that “surprises can never be ruled out” – and sure enough, on March 25 came the news that senior presidential adviser and ex-unification minister Lim Dong-won, the architect of the Sunshine Policy, will go to Pyongyang in early April as South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s special envoy.  That falls in the next quarter, so it would be wrong to pre-empt it now.  At first glance it looks driven by concerns about the U.S., such as the Pentagon’s leaked Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and U.S. President George Bush’s refusal to certify that North Korea is fully in compliance (except at the Yongbyon site) with the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework. While hope springs eternal even in this jaded breast, we shall see if this visit, unlike its many predecessors, ushers in a new phase and a sustained peace process – or is just the latest stop-go.

Winter is Kim Jong-il’s favorite season; the traits he most hates are compromise and surrender.  The Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo carried these and other insights (favorite color? Red, of course) into the North Korean leader’s tastes, quoting the February issue of the DPRK literary monthly Chosun Munhak.  Kim is also cited as detesting flattery and sycophancy, so his 60th birthday on Feb. 16 must have been misery for him.  Called hwan’gap, this anniversary is traditionally a big one in Korea, and North Korea celebrated it with all its customary pomp and circumstance.  More of the same is due in April for the 90th birthday of his late father Kim Il-sung.  Such grand events tend to render the DPRK even more introverted than usual and thus weigh against hopes that it might emerge from its bunker and seriously re-engage South Korea any time soon.

Maybe the dear leader’s seasonal preferences account for the long chill that has settled on inter-Korean relations.  Someone who equates compromise with surrender would in any case have a problem with the kind of sustained negotiating process, with both sides yielding ground, that the world hoped had finally begun with the June 2000 North-South summit.  Twenty-one months later, this seeming breakthrough must now regretfully be filed away with all the other false dawns: 1972, 1985, and 1990-2.  Each time, it looked as if North Korea was seriously ready to talk; for a few months or years, talk it did.  But every time, although much was said, little was really done.  In all cases, sooner or later Pyongyang pulled out, leaving the Peninsula never quite unchanged, yet far less so than had been hoped.  Witness the fact that each time talks start, it is from scratch.  The 1985 agreement was ignored in 1991, and that in turn was sidelined at the 2000 summit.  Despite an overused Korean proverb – sijaki banida: the first step is half the journey – only the second step, if and when it ever comes, will prove that a real peace process is at last under way.

For a second successive quarter, what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described as his biggest problem – “Events, dear boy. Events” – have conspired to alter at the last moment the inter-Korean prognosis. Last time it was good news, with a renewal of stalled dialogue. But now the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) June 29 sinking of an ROK patrol boat, killing five, may be a final blow to ROK President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. This wholly unexpected and allegedly unprovoked attack – a spiteful bid to rain on Seoul’s soccer parade? – did not escalate militarily but politically must cast a long shadow. It will weaken those in Seoul or Washington who would give DPRK leader Kim Jong-il the benefit of the doubt, while vindicating the “axis of evil” camp. As such, not for the first time, it is baffling to see what Pyongyang hopes to gain by this own goal; the fuller implications will be clearer next time we report. The bulk of this article was completed before this sad day.

April began promisingly: Kim Dae-jung’s special envoy returned from Pyongyang with commitments to restart stalled dialogue. But only family reunions were held; other meetings did not materialize. Yet in June, de facto official talks on a new topic, telecoms, tentatively agreed that Southern firms will launch mobile service in Pyongyang, perhaps even this year. Unofficial contacts continued, including a boat and two planeloads of civic groups and a tête-à-tête between the offspring of the ROK and DPRK’s erstwhile leaders. Moreover, cooperation is extending into new areas such as teaching, in fields from information technology (IT) to nuclear science. In short, it is a mixed picture: frustrating in many ways, yet not without hope. At the same time, an escalating refugee crisis involving several nations, is a sober reminder of the potential for instability on the peninsula.

Yet again, inter-Korean relations have confounded expectations. A quarter that began with the Northern navy sinking a Southern patrol boat – and Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy with it, or so it seemed – ended with Korean People’s Army (KPA) and Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers jointly clearing mines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to relink two cross-border road and rail routes. On Sept. 29, athletes from both Koreas marched behind a unity flag to open the 14th Asian Games in Pusan, the first time the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has ever joined in a sporting event in the Republic of Korea. All this, and much more recounted below, is hopeful.

But past precedent inevitably counsels caution, lest seeming breakthroughs prove once again temporary rather than definitive. From next February, a new South Korean president may take a harder line; especially if new claims that Seoul paid for the 2000 North-South  summit poison the atmosphere. Or noises off could spoil things, such as a U.S.  attack on Iraq – particularly if not under UN auspices. Against that, Japan’s opting for engagement, as in Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s sensational summit with DPRK leader Kim Jong-il, leaves Washington’s tougher stance more isolated. Also moves toward economic reform, harder to reverse than diplomatic outreach, buttress hopes that this time North Korea really is trying to change, and that progress may prove enduring.

The final quarter of 2002 was one of uncertainty in inter-Korean relations. At one level, it all looked very positive. Unlike the stop-go of the past, North and South Koreans met regularly, both officially at government level and in a variety of private or quasi-civilian milieux. (The gray area between the two, as ever, remained key: in one sense, on the Northern side, no one who gets to meet Southerners is ever really non-official.) Moreover, these three months saw several promising initiatives. Pyongyang formally designated two separate areas adjoining the demilitarized zone (DMZ) – Kaesong, north of Seoul, and the established Mt. Kumgang resort on the east coast – as special economic zones for South Korean business, while a high-powered delegation, including Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and two ministers, spent a week visiting the cream of South Korean industry. Overall, Seoul’s Unification Ministry called 2002 the best year ever for inter-Korean contacts since these began on a regular basis in 1989.

Yet there were also negatives, both intrinsic and “noises off.” Some of these encounters were brief, formalistic, or limited. Family reunions, never remotely adequate to meet demand, may have stalled for now. Although road and rail links made great strides, with de-mining of two trans-DMZ corridors completed by December, Pyongyang’s refusal to admit the authority of the United Nations Command (UNC) meant that by year’s end a land route to Mt. Kumgang had not yet opened, nor had groundbreaking for the Kaesong industrial complex taken place. To Seoul’s puzzled disappointment, the North continued to stall even on basic rules for inter-Korean business agreed in outline two years ago, suggesting a lingering lack of commitment.

Over all this, for most of the quarter, loomed a nuclear cloud which by year’s end had become a full-blown storm. While the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis per se is beyond the scope of this article, going forward its shadow cannot be avoided. On Dec. 19 South Korean voters narrowly elected a new president, Roh Moo-hyun, who is both committed to continue Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and not minded to meekly follow a U.S. lead. It remains to be seen if Southern aid and other contact with the North will continue unconditionally, or even expand – possibly as part of an eventual package deal to settle the nuclear issue – or whether, on the contrary, rising tensions will see such projects as KEDO’s light water reactor (LWR) construction at Kumho, whose status as of now is in limbo, suspended or abandoned.

Inter-Korean relations in the first quarter of 2003 were a curious mixture. The now familiar forms of interaction, re-established in the preceding quarter after more than a year of on-off hiatus, continued. Ministerial talks, economic dialogue, family reunions, semi-official civic events, and others were all held. On a non-official level, business and aid contacts went ahead as is now normal. If all this suggests marking time, there was at least one breakthrough: the partial opening of two temporary roads across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), breaching the heavily armed border for the first time in half a century. In happier times this would have made headlines and been an occasion for rejoicing as a further step toward reunification.

But these are not happy times in Korea, and rejoicing was muted. The Peninsula has indeed made headlines – for the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis, as Pyongyang unleashed one provocation after another: quitting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restarting its nuclear reactor (but not yet the reprocessing plant) at Yongbyon, shadowing a U.S. spy plane, test firing two short-range missiles, and more. Most of that is beyond the scope of this article, if only because North Korea insists that the nuclear issue is no business of Seoul’s – despite the December 1991 joint declaration on denuclearization of the Peninsula, which says otherwise.

Inevitably, nuclear concerns formed a somber backdrop to all inter-Korean intercourse this quarter. The South raised them at every opportunity, but made no headway. Nor was this the only dark cloud, as revelations emerged to cast a pall on past inter-Korean progress. During former President Kim Dae-jung’s final weeks in office, it was admitted that the June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il, for which Kim Dae-jung won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, had been preceded by a secret payment of at least $500 million by the Hyundai business group to North Korea. The further investigations now under way pose a delicate challenge for South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo-hyun, who comes from Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and is pledged to continue the Sunshine Policy approach, albeit now renamed as “policy for peace and prosperity.”

But it takes two to engage. North Korea marked Roh’s inauguration with a missile test. As always, it objected to annual joint U.S.-ROK war games. When Roh backed the U.S. on Iraq, and after an erroneous report that South Korea had raised its defense alert status, Pyongyang pulled out of talks due in the last week of March; it went on to cancel Cabinet-level talks set for early April. It was not immediately clear if this was a limited protest, or if it presaged a general suspension of official inter-Korean dialogue, as was the case during most of 2001 and 2002. All this points to a bumpy ride for Roh, and, despite those first tiny holes in the border, no obvious roadmap for a broad highway going forward.

The most emblematic moment in inter-Korean ties during the past quarter occurred June 14. In a low-key ceremony timed to mark the third anniversary of the first North-South summit, the two sides reconnected their railway tracks in two corridors across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), near the west and east coasts of the Peninsula. If rejoicing was muted, this reflected not just the ongoing nuclear blight, but the fact that this relinking was so far only symbolic. On the Southern side, all is ready to roll, whereas north of the DMZ, large chunks of track have yet to be built.  So the much-hyped “iron silk road,” across Siberia to Europe, will not be ready any time soon.  South Korea still hopes to see the western Kyongui rail link completed this year.  Yet that will depend not only on Pyongyang’s willingness to realize a project it has persistently delayed – although latterly it has seemed keener again – but (in all probability) also on developments over the nuclear issue, which continues to overshadow everything.

In that sense this rail “link” is symptomatic of the ambiguous state of inter-Korean relations currently. While the nuclear shadow has by no means ended all North-South contact – in fact there was more this quarter than in some pre-crisis periods, especially in 2001 – it inevitably colors and inhibits dialogue. Thus both ministerial and economic talks spent much time discussing this – or rather, with the South raising it and the North refusing to discuss it. In a related twist, in the first full quarter of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in South Korea Pyongyang took strong exception to the new president’s harder line after he met George W. Bush in Washington in mid-May.  Inter-Korean meetings then witnessed a new sight:  a tough-minded Seoul digging its heels in and demanding an apology before proceeding to business.

Almost a year after charges that North Korea has a second, covert nuclear program plunged the Peninsula into intermittent crisis, inter-Korean ties appear surprisingly unaffected. The past quarter saw sustained and brisk exchanges on many fronts, seemingly regardless of this looming shadow. Although Pyongyang steadfastly refuses to discuss the nuclear issue with Seoul bilaterally, the fact that six-party talks on this topic were held in Beijing in late August – albeit with no tangible progress, nor even any assurance that such dialogue will continue – is perhaps taken (rightly or wrongly) as meaning the issue is now under control. At all events, between North and South Korea it is back to business as usual – or even full steam ahead.

While (at least in this writer’s view) closer inter-Korean relations are in themselves a good thing, one can easily imagine scenarios in which this process may come into conflict with U.S. policy. Should the six-party process fail or break down, or if Pyongyang were to test a bomb or declare itself a nuclear power, then there would be strong pressure from Washington for sanctions in some form. Indeed, alongside the six-way process, the U.S. is already pursuing an interdiction policy with its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which Japan has joined but South Korea, pointedly, has not. Relinking of cross-border roads and railways, or the planned industrial park at Kaesong (with power and water from the South), are examples of initiatives which might founder, were the political weather around the Peninsula to turn seriously chilly.

The final quarter of 2003 saw no dramatic developments in inter-Korean ties, either positive or negative. Rather, the picture was one of steady interaction across a now established range of contacts: political, economic, transport, social, cultural, and more. The chronology that accompanies this article tells its own story. There is far more going on now between the two Koreas than when Comparative Connections began to cover this bilateral relationship less than four years ago – let alone in the preceding half-century of hostility and minimal contacts.

Yet this new pattern is itself doubly remarkable. First, it suggests that at long last North-South relations have become institutionalized and firmly rooted. The on-off pattern of the past looks to have been superseded by permanent and continuous interaction, if still somewhat shallow. Secondly, this de facto normalization has occurred during, and despite, the still unresolved nuclear crisis. In the past, one side or the other would have used this as a reason or pretext to curtail or even break off ties. But depending on its outcome, this may yet pose an obstacle to deepening inter-Korean relations beyond the level reached at this relatively early stage.

As in the final quarter of 2003, the start of a new year saw no dramatic developments in inter-Korean ties, either positive or negative. The quarter’s main event was multilateral rather than bilateral, as a second round of six-party talks – the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia – at last convened in Beijing in late February. The hoped-for semi-institutionalization of this multilateral forum – assuming it happens and deepens over time, both of which are big ifs – is bound to impact on all the bilateral relationships tracked by Comparative Connections.

Yet inter-Korean ties look likely to preserve their special character as two halves of a divided nation – hence, technically, neither Korea regards them as foreign relations. That does not mean, however, that they will necessarily deepen; if they do, it won’t be very fast. The nuclear crisis will not prevent cooperation, but it will continue to limit it from Seoul’s side, in part due to pressure from the U.S. to go easy on the carrots while the North remains in nuclear defiance. From Pyongyang’s side, several actions seemed a reversion to old-style game-playing, or at best suggested that North Korea has no immediate wish to further develop North-South ties, but will continue to milk the relatively one-sided and shallow (though regular) channels of contacts that now exist.

After the relative lull of the previous two quarters, spring brought new growth to inter-Korean relations, with a spate of meetings in many fields. In particular, South Korea finally obtained its long-sought goal of direct North-South military talks at general level, who in turn swiftly agreed to communications steps to prevent naval clashes like those of 1999 and 2002. In a highly symbolic move, on June 15 – the fourth anniversary of the June 2000 Pyongyang summit – each side turned off its propaganda loudspeakers, terminating decades of noise pollution across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Multilaterally too, Seoul played a key role in the latest, and most hopeful so far, six-party nuclear talks in Beijing. For the first time, the U.S. presented a detailed and phased plan, including incentives for Pyongyang – based on a South Korean draft. Yet many obstacles remain on this front. Bilaterally too, while North-South progress looks encouraging, the exact mix of symbolism and substance in this process remains arguable. Nonetheless Seoul seems set on sticking with Sunshine, whatever might transpire on other fronts.

North Korea’s capacity to wrongfoot the analyst should never be underestimated. Three months ago, extrapolating from recent trends, it seemed reasonable to conclude that inter-Korean talks are now institutionalized. In the longer term that remains true, but in July, Pyongyang reverted to its old bad habit of boycotting most major formal channels of North-South dialogue and, by late September, had not relented. It acted, as ever, out of anger – especially at a mass airlift of DPRK refugees to Seoul from Vietnam, plus assorted other gripes. While some contacts continued, this hiatus, along with North Korea’s virtual refusal to allow the six-party talks on the nuclear issue to reconvene, made this a summer during which the Korean question in all its manifold complexities mostly marked time.

None of this was apparent when the quarter began. A third round of six-party talks, held in Beijing in late June, committed to meet again by end-September, preceded by working meetings in August. With the U.S. for the first time offering a detailed proposal, the DPRK Foreign Ministry noted “common elements helpful to making progress.” Bilaterally, after the second quarter’s major breakthroughs – the first ever high-level military talks, setting up a naval hotline (albeit with teething problems) and starting to dismantle propaganda displays and speakers at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the last week of June alone saw a density of contacts that seemed the new norm. In quick succession: both Koreas agreed to march together at the Athens Olympics; their central bank chiefs met in Basel, Switzerland, while at home, foreign trade banks agreed to payment clearance mechanisms; 350 dignitaries came to a ground-breaking ceremony for the first phase of the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ); and working-level talks on road and rail links began at Mt. Kumgang. It all looked good.

In a cliché beloved of British soccer commentators, inter-Korean relations in 2004 were a game of two halves. Until mid-year all seemed to be going well, including unprecedented military talks to ease border tensions. On land, symbolically, propaganda loudspeakers fell silent along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), while at sea, substantively, direct radio contact between the KPA and ROK navies began, so as to avoid clashes. Meanwhile the usual channels of Seoul-Pyongyang dialogue at various levels met routinely, appearing to make progress on a range of substantive issues, such as cross-border road and rail links.

But July saw a U-turn. Angry on several fronts (more on motives below), North Korea pulled out of most of its hitherto regular talks with the South. By early 2005 it had not relented, and showed no sign of doing so. Of course, Seoul was not the only one to feel Pyongyang’s wrath. On a wider canvas, the North also notoriously refused to return to Six-Party Talks (both Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia) in Beijing on its nuclear issue, so a fourth round, due by September, failed to take place. Kim Jong-il was widely assumed to be awaiting the U.S. presidential election – and praying for Kerry. Yet on this front too, as of early January Pyongyang is still stalling, saying it now wishes to see the character and policy contours of the second Bush administration. For good measure, as reported elsewhere in this issue of Comparative Connections, North Korea is also embroiled in a row with Japan – over its continued failure to come fully clean on the fate of most of the young Japanese whom it admits to kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s.

In that sense, the current stasis in inter-Korean ties partly reflects the fact that right now North Korea is no mood to talk seriously to anyone about anything. But there are also specific aspects to this always distinctive relationship between two halves of a divided land. Rather than discuss non-events – such as rumors throughout the quarter of plans for a second inter-Korean summit – it seems more sensible this time to focus on two specific matters. One is the refugee issue: a salutary reminder that there is more to inter-Korean ties than merely what the two governments cook up between them, or fail to. The other is the one field of cooperation that Pyongyang is still keen on, doubtless because there is money in it. The first goods made by an ROK firm in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) – saucepans, as it happens – hit the stores in Seoul just in time for Christmas, and sold out in two days. So maybe an otherwise bleak New Year is not wholly without hope after all.

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.

Looking back, it was a hostage to fortune to title our last quarterly review: “Things can only get better?” Even with that equivocating final question mark, this was too optimistic a take on relations between the two Koreas – which, as it turned out, not only failed to improve but deteriorated further in the first months of 2009. Nor was that an isolated trend. This was a quarter when a single event – or more exactly, the expectation of an event – dominated the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia more widely. Suspected since January, announced in February and awaited throughout March, despite all efforts to dissuade it North Korea’s long-anticipated Taepodong launched on April 5. This too evoked a broader context, and a seeming shift in Pyongyang. Even by the DPRK’s unfathomable logic, firing a big rocket – satellite or no – seemed a rude and perverse way to greet a new U.S. president avowedly committed to engagement with Washington’s foes. Yet, no fewer than four separate senior private U.S. delegations, visiting Pyongyang in unusually swift succession during the past quarter, heard the same uncompromising message. Even veteran visitors who fancied they had good contacts found the usual access denied and their hosts tough-minded: apparently just not interested in an opportunity for a fresh start offered by a radically different incumbent of the White House.

The second quarter of 2009 saw North Korea make headlines around the world, as it likes to do. (On their leisurely train journey across Siberia toward Moscow in the summer of 2001, Kim Jong-il told his Russian host, Konstantin Pulikovsky: “’I am the object of criticism around the world. But I think that since I am being discussed, then I am on the right track.”) The quarter was neatly, perhaps deliberately, bookended by missile launches. On April 5 after a two month build-up, while the world watched the preparations via spy satellites, the DPRK finally fired its long-awaited Taepodong-2 long-range missile. Ostensibly this was to put a satellite in orbit – although neither the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) nor anyone else has managed to observe any new object soaring across the heavens. Meanwhile, relations between the South and North continued to deteriorate as interaction became more caustic and the stakes higher. By the end of the quarter, the rest of the world watched again as the North launched more missiles.

Dealing with North Korea resembles the board game Snakes & Ladders (known in the U.S. as Chutes & Ladders). The first half of this year was an especially long snake/chute. Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests, and its general bellicosity, not only undid last year’s slight gains in the Six-Party Talks (6PT), but were a strange way to greet an incoming U.S. president avowedly committed to exploring engagement with Washington’s traditional foes. But what goes down must, eventually, come up, even if each time some may fear it is a case of – to change the spatial metaphor – one step forward, two steps back. As of autumn, things on the peninsula are looking up somewhat – at least relatively, if not in any absolute sense.

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.

Daily Digest

Lowy Institute: Doklam: Paths ahead for India and China

Lowy Institute contributor Shashank Joshi outlines possible scenarios to the India-China tension in Doklam.

Water Wars: It’s Time to “Get Used to It” in the South China Sea

Lawfare’s weekly update and analyses on events related to the South China and East China Sea along with updates on the various developments in the region.

The Diplomat: China’s North Korea Solution

China’s priority is stability in the Korean Peninsula, argues Son Daekwon, Ph.D. candidate at Peking University and a Korea Foundation Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

East Asia Forum: Cloudy forecast for Moon’s ‘Sunshine Policy 2.0’

An argument that Moon’s plan of reciprocating North Korea’s actions with lucrative economic deals will not yield favorable results.

Asia Times: Could US reset sanctions on Myanmar over North Korea?

Given persistent reports of ongoing ties between the Myanmar’s military and North Korea, Bertil Lintner argues that the Myanmar’s civilian government may not be aware of ongoing relationship.

Lowy Institute: Indonesia’s new North Natuna Sea: What’s in a name?

Indonesia draws its own lines — and makes its own name — in the South China Sea.

Korea JoongAng Daily: The North ‘as it is’

Accept North Korea as a nuclear state and then engage for peace.

ASEAN Today: Why the Philippines won the South China Sea, but China has taken the spoils

China’s exercise of raw power trumps the Hague ruling.

East Asia Forum: The South China Sea seven years on

An analysis of how US policy since 2010 has influenced the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.