North Korea-South Korea Relations

Aidan Foster-Career
Content Type
Journal Article
Comparative Connections
Issue Number
Publication Date
October 2008
Center for Strategic and International Studies
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.
Human Rights
Political Geography
United States, South Korea, North Korea
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. Death of a tourist Yet even as Lee spoke, he had just been told of an incident that would nip all this in the bud. On the same day, Park Wang-ja, a middle-aged woman and one of 1.8 million South Korean tourists who have visited the North's Mt. Kumgang resort in the past decade, was fatally shot when she wandered into a forbidden area on a pre-dawn stroll. We may never know exactly what happened – the rumor is a nervous 17-year old female soldier, newly enlisted into the Korean People's Army (KPA) was responsible for the shooting – because Pyongyang, while expressing perfunctory regret, blamed Seoul and refused to let a Southern investigation team visit the site. The ROK responded by suspending all tourism to Mt. Kumgang; the DPRK riposted by threatening to expel “unnecessary” Southern personnel who were keeping the resort facilities ticking over, many of whom duly left. As of early October, the matter remained unresolved, its stalemate a symbol, as well as a major cause, of the parlous state of inter-Korean ties more generally. Could this have been handled differently? Had it occurred on Roh Moo-hyun's watch, would the North have let Southern investigators in? Might Roh have reacted in some way short of suspending all tourism? – which inter alia is having a dire effect on the business of Hyundai Asan, which runs the resort. Of course, the shooting and Pyongyang's reaction were appalling. North Korea-South Korea Relations 83 October 2008 Yet this was the first such incident in a decade, which for a paranoid militarized regime like the DPRK is quite something. (It also revealed laxity and complacency on-site, in that Ms Park was easily, if not unwittingly, able to cross the fatal barrier. Either the KPA should be less trigger-happy, or fences should be strengthened – as they since have been). That the South does not see a general safety issue is clear from the fact that Hyundai's newer cross-border day trips to Kaesong city, an ancient capital just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), are still continuing, unimpeded by either side. These only began last December, but the cumulative total of visitors is expected to surpass 100,000 this month (October 2008). Life is cheap One possibility, though no excuse, is that a regime that sees individual lives as expendable genuinely cannot grasp what all the fuss is about. Thus in a little-reported incident a month later, a South Korean barge that had been excavating sand off North Korea's east coast – a reminder that inter-Korean business goes on, even while politics is icy – ploughed into a DPRK fishing boat while sailing home. The boat sank, and two Northerners died. It was two in the morning and the ROK captain admitted his crew was asleep and he was steering solo. Yet after a day's questioning the local KPA authorities let them go home, without penalty or any demand for compensation. Maybe this was an olive branch; if so, it went unnoticed in Seoul. No Olympic cooperation The inter-Korean freeze put paid to plans, which come up every four years, for a joint Korean team for the Olympic Games. This has never happened, nor did it this time. In the last two Olympics, in Sydney and Athens, the two Korean teams marched together at the opening ceremony (albeit to the chagrin of many ROK athletes, who did not get to march at all so as to keep the numbers from each side equal since the South sends much larger teams). This time they could not even manage that; each Korea entered the Beijing stadium separately. Nor did the exciting prospect of the first train from Seoul to Beijing in over half a century, carrying a joint cheering squad of supporters, come to pass. This all seems a great pity. In competition, both Koreas performed creditably: the South finished seventh (ahead of Japan) in the final medal tables, while the North ranked 33rd. Off the track, Lee Myung-bak got to shake hands with Kim Yong-nam, the North's titular head of state, at the opening banquet. Apparently they did not talk. They were seated on opposite sides of the same table, but it was too wide for conversation. Elsewhere, in the interminable qualifiers for soccer's World Cup, North Korea maintained its unsporting and illegal refusal to let South Korea fly its flag or play its anthem when the two were again drawn to play each other in Pyongyang on Sept. 10. Again FIFA allowed the match to be moved to neutral Shanghai. The result, 1-1, was their fourth consecutive draw. North Korea-South Korea Relations 84 October 2008 Kaesong carries on The suspension of Mt. Kumgang tours did not affect the other major cross-border business project, the Kaesong industrial complex (KIC). As of July 4, the number of Northern workers there topped 30,000, working for 72 Southern (mostly smallish) firms. These employers announced on Aug. 13 that the minimum monthly wage had been raised by 5 percent, from $52.50 to $55.13, the second pay rise since the complex opened in 2004. The money is paid to DPRK authorities, so how much actually reaches the workers' pockets is not clear. Bussing 30,000 workers in and out daily is quite a challenge. (Many cycle; the North will not let new rail lines be used.) On Sept. 21 Rodong Sinmun, the DPRK's ruling party daily, attacked “traitor” Lee Myung-bak for opposing plans for a Northern workers' dormitory at the KIC; it accused him of “trying to ruin all business projects in Kaesong.” Lee claims that this could lead to industrial unrest. The previous Roh administration had agreed to build the 15,000-bed facility, while a labor shortage is feared if the zone continues to expand as originally envisaged. It is not immediately obvious why such a dormitory should be suspect. Seoul continues aid under 6PT The nuclear Six-Party Talks (6PT), despite a worsening dispute over verification issues, did at least provide a context for the two Koreas to meet. They did so, at the North's request, at Panmunjom on Sept. 19 to discuss energy-related aid being sent by the South under the 6PT. Though no agreement was reached, later reports that South Korea may suspend deliveries – specifically of 4,000 tons of steel pipes – appeared premature. Meeting in New York on Sept. 22 for the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to continue aid to the North, for now. Days later, North Korea unexpectedly suggested military talks. The first official bilateral contact of the Lee era accordingly took place at Panmunjom on Oct. 2. It was a damp squib. The start was delayed by almost an hour when the North demanded that the media be present throughout with the South protesting that this was not usual. When the meeting eventually began, all the DPRK wanted to do was protest Southern NGOs spreading propaganda leaflets across the DMZ. In an apparent olive branch to Pyongyang, the ROK government duly did ask those concerned to desist – which they robustly declined to do: at least two balloon launches were set to go ahead as planned in October. Diplomatic déjà vu One effect of the Kumgang shooting incident was a brief revival of inter-Korean diplomatic competition, as seen 30 years ago in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and elsewhere. It began at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), held in Singapore on July 24. The ARF is the only regional gathering that the DPRK attends regularly. Behind the bonhomie – short-lived, as it turned out – over the recently concluded 6PT plenary, Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun asked the ARF to press Seoul to fully implement the two summit accords of 2000 and 2007. His ROK equivalent, Yu Myung-hwan, was equally keen to have ARF urge the DPRK to cooperate in investigating the Kumgang shooting. The chairman's draft statement included both Koreas' North Korea-South Korea Relations 85 October 2008 demands. Then the ROK protested at the summit references, only to see both this and its own probe demand excised from the final version as if to say: a plague on all Koreans and their pesky rows. So neither side won. The Seoul press demanded Yu's head. With Yu also under petty-minded instructions to cold-shoulder his Japanese opposite number over Dokdo/ Takeshima, this was not ROK diplomacy's finest hour. Honor all accords, not just the two summits The battle then moved to Tehran, where the NAM – still going, though it is hard to see why – met July 27-30. This time the ROK – never a full member as the DPRK kept it out, arguing not unreasonably that hosting 20,000-plus U.S. forces constitutes alignment – did manage to get some of its preferred wording into the final cut: calling on the North to honor all inter-Korean accords. The aim and subtext here is to get away from the stance shared by Pyongyang and the last two ROK administrations whereby inter-Korean relations are falsely implied to have only begun with Kim Dae-jung and the 2000 summit. This of course elides decades of fitful prior contacts, above all the two North-South accords – one general, the other on denuclearization – of late 1991. Neither was ever implemented, as the rise of the first North Korean nuclear crisis soured relations. Resurrecting this now is perfectly fair in theory, but as with its linking inter-Korean progress to denuclearization, one does wonder quite what Lee Myung-bak expects this changed stance will achieve in practice. Human rights: silent no more Inter-Korean rapprochement will not be helped by signals from Seoul that it will not stay silent on Pyongyang's human rights abuses. The issue was raised, unprecedentedly, in President Lee's joint statement with President George W Bush, who stopped over briefly in August en route to Beijing. A week later the North refused to let Jay Lefkowitz, Bush's special envoy on DPRK human rights, visit the Kaesong industrial zone from Seoul. Lefkowitz has previously criticized working conditions at the complex. Or again, in September the ninth Seoul Peace Prize, worth $200,000, went to Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation (DFF), a conservative Washington NGO, for her work raising awareness of North Korean refugees and human rights issues. Previous winners are a diverse bunch: they include Kofi Annan, Vaclav Havel, George Schultz, Juan Antonio Samaranch and Oxfam. Ms. Scholte's sterling work would certainly not have been thus honored in Seoul during the past decade. On Japan, at least, they agree August 15, Liberation Day from Japan in 1945, is a holiday in both Koreas. During 2001-06 they celebrated it jointly; not always without incident, as the North sometimes tried to enroll the Southern visitors in overtly pro-DPRK activities. Last year Busan, the ROK's main port and second city, was to play host – but North Korea pulled out at short notice, in protest at upcoming US-ROK military exercises. The latter, now renamed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, are an annual event, and Pyongyang's protests are equally routine. Needless to say there was no celebration North Korea-South Korea Relations 86 October 2008 this year. Lee Myung-bak used the occasion to renew his call to North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons and resume full-fledged dialogue and economic cooperation with the South, but got short shrift. But there is one thing Koreans can always agree on. North Korea is as fierce as the South in defending the “Koreanness” of the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islets. Thus a joint committee for implementing the 2000 summit declaration used the occasion to condemn “the Japanese imperialists' vicious colonial rule over the Korean nation,” adding that “Japan has not yet admitted the thrice-cursed crimes it committed against the Korean people, but is getting more frantic in distortion of its history of aggression, moves to grab Dokdo islets and political suppression of Koreans in Japan.” At other times, however, Northern media attacked Lee Myung-bak for allegedly kowtowing to Tokyo. How hungry? It now looks as if the whole of 2008 will pass without South Korea giving any official food aid to the North. The half-million tons of grain which Seoul has sent – nominally as a loan – in most recent years was, in effect, substituted by the similar amount donated by the U.S. at an earlier, happier stage in the 6PT process. In August, WFP directly asked Seoul to give a modest $60 million worth, but even this has not happened, despite the ROK's professed willingness to provide. No doubt both Koreas find it hard to swallow their pride. A Northern Mata Hari reveals all On Sept. 9 Won Jeong-hwa, 34, a North Korean defector, pleaded guilty to being a DPRK agent. Over five years since arriving in Seoul she had slept with at least four army officers, passing secrets thus obtained back to Pyongyang. On Oct. 1 prosecutors sought a five-year jail term; sentencing is due on Oct. 15. This trial is the first of its kind for a decade, a lacuna that conservatives claim is no accident as they accuse the last two presidents, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) of playing down North Korean espionage so as not to jeopardize the “sunshine” policy. Likewise, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) was discouraged from pursuing the North's malefactions, so jeopardizing national security. There may well be some truth in this; just as, elsewhere, new school textbooks published in the past decade have swung from the old excoriation to a nationalist stance that forgives or whitewashes North Korea across the board. Finding a better balance is one thing, but the fear is that Lee Myung-bak, or some around him, will try to put the clocks back entirely. The NIS is heavily, perhaps fatally, compromised by its origins under the military dictators who ruled from 1961 to 1987, when, as the agency now admits, its predecessor the KCIA tortured and killed innocent democrats whom it falsely painted as pro-North. North Korea-South Korea Relations 87 October 2008 Turning the clocks back Against that background, there are some worrying signs. On Aug. 26 police arrested Oh Se-cheol, former dean of the business school at prestigious Yonsei university, along with six other members of the Socialist Workers League of Korea (SWLK), for denouncing liberal capitalism: apparently a crime under the catch-all National Security Law (NSL), which dates back to the era of dictatorship and is long overdue for repeal (Roh Moo-hyun tried to, but failed). As Trotskyists, the SWLK are no friends to North Korea, which they denounce just as strongly as capitalism. Fortunately a court threw out the arrest warrant, noting that “no evidence shows that the group damaged society with fatal ideas.” Rewriting history Again, in an unprecedented request on Sept. 6 the Defense Ministry (MND) formally asked the education ministry to revise 25 chapters of the current high school modern history texts. Regarding the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power in 1979 and perpetrated the 1980 Kwangju massacre, MND wants the phrase that Chun “staged oppressive politics based on military power” replaced by “was forced to take several measures to curb activities of some left-wing groups, who, under the name of democracy, were friendly toward North Korea.” That is an odd way to describe the death sentence imposed on the democrat Kim Dae-jung – who ironically later pardoned Chun after he in turn was sentenced to death, on less trumped-up charges, in 1996. Balance is one thing, but this move seems ominous. Separately, MND has a list of banned books that conscripts must not read. These include Bad Samaritans, a popular critique of the “Washington consensus” on development by Ha-Joon Chang, a well-known Korean professor at Cambridge whose stance is Keynesian rather than Marxist, far less pro-North. This ban too is ominous, as well as ludicrous and counter-productive: since the list was publicized, sales of this and other banned books have shot up. On Sept. 27 the Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo reported that the National Police Agency (NPA) is monitoring 76 pro-DPRK websites overseas: 31 in the U.S., 19 in Japan, 13 in China, 4 in Germany, and 9 elsewhere. Some cunningly disguise themselves with names such as book center, university, bank, baduk, Korean music, and so forth. It is absurd by any standards that South Korean are denied the freedom to see these mostly risible sites, as they still are. Health warning Kim Jong-il's absence on Sept. 9 from the DPRK's 60th anniversary parade started rumors about his health around the globe – in Seoul by no means least. That is understandable, if again unhelpful in the context of trying to kick-start dialogue. Both the ROK government and NGOs returning from Pyongyang warned against intelligence leaks and excessive speculation, for fear that these would simply infuriate the North. North Korea-South Korea Relations 88 October 2008 Gas or hot air? The end of the quarter found Lee Myung-bak on a state visit to Russia. On Sept. 29 he agreed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to link the inter-Korean and trans-Siberian railways, and to build a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea via North Korea. Both are good ideas, which as Lee said would help South Korea cut its logistics costs. The gas project – only a memorandum of understanding (MOU), at this stage, between Kogas and Gazprom – envisages Seoul importing gas worth $3 billion annually over 30 years, starting in 2015. There is just one small problem. It is not South Korea that has a border with Russia. Lee airily told reporters that the benefits, especially from the pipeline, will be too attractive for North Korea to ignore. This suggests, alas, that he neither knows his history, nor has he learned the lessons of the failure of his approach to the North thus far. The pipeline idea goes back two decades. The first to push for this was the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, on his pioneering first visit to North Korea in 1989. Yet not even the formidable Chung, well-connected in all three capitals, could make this happen. In those days South Korea too had cold feet – but basically the North Koreans were not interested, even in a project that could have earned them a handsome rent as well as providing badly needed energy, all at little cost or risk to their system. Will it be different now? Kim Jong-il's regime may be in dire economic straits but it still has its pride. Pyongyang's brusque rejection of Lee's patronizing Vision 3000 plan – his offer to raise average Northern annual income per head to $3,000 – should have told him how not to handle the North. It is the same technocratic arrogance that has seen his popularity plummet at home. Lee knows what is best for everyone, and expects them just to tag along. But politics does not work like that anywhere, least of all with prickly North Korea: not a regime that follows anyone, meekly or otherwise, nor much given to picking the sensible business option. At this writing the North had yet to comment on Lee's gas idea, so we shall see. Slow train As for the railway, wheels are already in motion. In Moscow's first major investment in the DPRK for 20 years – $8 billion in unpaid Soviet-era debts remains a disincentive – Russian Railways signed a deal in April to renovate the track from Russia's border town of Khasan to North Korea's Rajin port, where a container port will be built with an eye to South Korean cargo. Negotiations over that 30 miles of track took seven years. With the North's wider rail infrastructure falling to pieces – modernizing it will cost at least $2 billion – no one should expect to catch a fast train from Seoul to Scotland any time soon. Physically, the journey is already feasible; but politically, despite all the excitement in Seoul last year over relinking cross-border railways (much rhetoric about healing the nation's severed arteries) in practice, North Korea was markedly reluctant to let the new lines actually be used – even to please the more sympathetic former Roh Moo-hyun administration. North Korea-South Korea Relations 89 October 2008 Business? What business? Some of the best reporting on Korea in recent years has come from the Los Angeles Times' Barbara Demick. Her prizewinning masterpiece, a reconstruction from defector interviews of how the 1996-98 famine hit the northeastern city of Chongjin, forms the basis of a book due out next March – which hopefully will get neanderthal right wing bloggers (plus the likes of Hugh Hewitt, who should know better) off her case. On a recent trip to Pyongyang, Demick noted “a mysterious building boom” and wondered who might be paying for it. Perhaps the South? Writing on Sept. 27, she continued: …South Korean companies and individuals have mostly ignored the political chill. Among the biggest players here are a unit of the Hyundai conglomerate, which operates the resort where the shooting occurred, and companies affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which also runs a car assembly plant in North Korea. The church last year completed work on what it calls the World Peace Center, behind the Potonggang Hotel, also owned by church affiliates. But this misleads, on two counts. First, the Hyundai that is losing money at the still closed Kumgang resort is no longer related to mighty namesakes like Hyundai Motor or Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), the world's largest shipbuilder. The empire built by Chung Ju-yung has splintered since his death in 2001. Internecine strife among his many sons is one reason, but another – not unrelated – is that most wanted nothing to do with their father's Northern adventure, seeing this as a license to lose money. The sole exception, Chung Mong-hun (his father's favorite), inherited the poisoned chalice – and killed himself two years later, under investigation over illicit financial transfers to Pyongyang. His widow now runs what is left of this rump of Hyundai, not helped by the North's tough line on the July shooting incident. Most chaebol steer well clear The other misleading note is that Hyundai Asan and the Unification Church are not “among the biggest players.” Rather, they are the only ROK firms of any size active in the DPRK. None of the other chaebol – Samsung (by far the biggest), LG, Lotte, Hanwha, Hanjin et al – has ever dipped more than a toe in the water. The reason is simple: all have seen Hyundai taken to the cleaners and are steering well clear. The contrast with Taiwanese firms in China is striking. One wonders if Kim Jong-il, or his successor, will ever grasp that fleecing the few willing to take the plunge is no recipe for either partnership or long-run success. (As for the “Moonies” – an intriguing and ironic presence, given Rev. Moon's original expulsion from the DPRK and decades of staunch anti-communism – they are not in it for the money.) Signs of a thaw? As a new quarter began, there were signs of a thaw. Thus Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said he hoped Kumgang tourism could resume in time for its 10th anniversary in November. His basis for this was not clear, but perhaps the two sides are weary of sniping and ready to bury the North Korea-South Korea Relations 90 October 2008 hatchet. If so, the timing looks hardly propitious in view of the state of the 6PT and Lee Myung-bak's insistence hitherto on denuclearization progress as a precondition. Whatever “sunshine's” faults, it is hard to see this year as an improvement. Former President Roh Moo-hyun, while clearly not a neutral party, put it eloquently. Leaving his rural retirement retreat for the first time to come to Seoul for the first anniversary of his summit with Kim Jong-il (Unification Minister Kim was too busy to attend), Roh protested that the agreement he signed has been “abandoned. … I hoped it would be thick with leaves and bear fruit one year later, but now the tree is shriveling.” It is difficult to disagree. Some rethinking in both Korean capitals is surely overdue; we shall see if it is forthcoming.