North Korea-South Korea Relations

Author
Aidan Foster-Carter
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal
Comparative Connections
Volume
11
Issue Number
1
Publication Date
April 2009
Institution
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Abstract
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.
Topic
International Relations, Development, Government
Political Geography
United States, South Korea, North Korea, Pyongyang
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. Not mending but building fences Speculation on the reasons for this newly negative stance – paralleled by a reversion to hardline policies on the home front also, as in efforts to rein in markets (with mixed success) – is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that a North Korea disdaining even Barack Obama was a fortiori in no mood to mend fences with the conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, whom DPRK media continued to insult as a traitor. Indeed, speaking of fences, the North was more inclined to re-erect them. The quarter's main inter-Korean event was March's petty and self-defeating – but also calibrated and temporary – border restrictions imposed to protest routine annual joint U.S.–ROK military exercises. This harassment put in doubt the future of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). A more sinister twist, unresolved at this writing, was the arrest of a Hyundai Asan employee at the KIC on March 30. He is charged with inciting a DPRK worker to defect and has been denied access to his employer or the ROK authorities, much less a lawyer. Whatever the background, as with the earlier arrest of two U.S. journalists on the DPRK-China border, this looked very much as if North Korea might be taking hostages, so as to blunt what in any case looked unlikely to be an especially stern or effective reaction by its enemies to the rocket launch. North Korea-South Korea Relations 83 April 2009 From bad to worse The year began on a sour note. The DPRK's customary New Year joint editorial, carried in the Party, Army, and youth daily papers, accused Lee Myung-bak of being “steeped in pro-U.S. sycophancy and hostility toward fellow countrymen.” Washington, by contrast, was spared such invective. For his part, Lee said his government would work calmly and flexibly to resolve the current stalemate in inter-Korean relations.” That mild note cut no ice, as the tone from Pyongyang grew harsher – with predictable criticism, for instance, of Japanese Premier Aso Taro's visit to Seoul on Jan. 11 as an anti-communist confab. A week later the DPRK moved the rhetoric up a level. On Jan. 17, an unnamed spokesman of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) General Staff appeared on DPRK TV in full uniform: a rare event. Declaring that “a war … can neither be averted nor avoided,” the grim-faced officer threatened “the puppet military warhawks” with “a strong military retaliatory step to wipe them out.” South Korea decided to say nothing, but put its forces on alert. This set the stage for almost daily diatribes, strong even by North Korea's usual standards. Seoul becomes hawkish This was perhaps not the most tactful moment for South Korea to name a noted hawk as its new unification minister. On Jan. 19 Kim Ha-joong – a career diplomat who spent six years as ROK ambassador in Beijing, reportedly seen as too soft by Lee MB – was replaced by Hyun In-taek, in a mini-reshuffle that also saw a new economic team appointed. Hyun, a political science professor, is seen as a hardliner and strong critic of the past “Sunshine” policy. He was also already a key adviser to Lee Myung-bak, known to be the architect of Lee's main policy switches on the North: making further aid conditional on denuclearization, and the so-called “Vision 3000” which offers to raise DPRK per capita income to $3,000 if Kim Jong-il disarms. Predictably, Minju Choson, the DPRK government's daily paper, a week later criticized this appointment as an “outright challenge” and “open provocation” that will “push inter-Korean relations deeper into the abyss of confrontation and ruin.” Debate continues in Seoul and beyond over the wisdom or otherwise of Lee Myung-bak's new nordpolitik. No doubt the old “Sunshine” was too one-sided, and needed rebalancing. But over a decade it did bring the Koreas closer, so critics fear hard-won progress is now being lost in a slide back into the old Cold War antagonisms with no evident gain for Seoul. Moreover, some policy decisions negate Lee's claim of goodwill toward the North; or more particularly, Seoul's claim to still support private humanitarian aid even while official ties remain frozen. For the past decade Jeju, the ROK's independent-minded sub-tropical island province, has every winter sent some 20,000 tons of its own produce – tangerines and carrots – to the DPRK. Much of this was centrally funded by the Unification Ministry (MOU), but not any more. In January, Jeju sent a much reduced shipment, as the Lee government refused to pay and withdrew the subsidy. Whatever one's politics, this just seems petty and mean. Also needlessly negative was Seoul's veto in February of a journalist association's agreement, signed in Pyongyang last October, to share news content online with Northern counterparts. MOU claimed this might “undermine national security [and] public order.” That is at once North Korea-South Korea Relations 84 April 2009 ridiculous – need the South really fear the North's risible propaganda? – and inconsistent. Two other ROK media bodies already have exchange accords with the DPRK, approved by the previous liberal administration in 2006 and 2007. The sky has not fallen in Seoul, yet. The North tears up all past accords Fathoming either Korean regime's current motives and tactics is problematic. The North's cranking of tension moved up another notch on Jan. 30, when its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) roundly declared all past inter-Korean agreements “nullified.” Taken literally, that means not only the two summit accords of 2000 and 2007, to which Pyongyang constantly urges President Lee to recommit; but also their more far-reaching yet never implemented predecessor, the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Cooperation and Exchange, which Lee insists must also form a basis for future relations. To some unease in Seoul, the CPRF singled out “points on the military boundary line in the West Sea” stipulated in the appendix of the 1991 accord referring to the Northern Limit Line (NLL), an issue that has been much rehearsed in these pages. The DPRK never formally accepted this UN-drawn post-Korean War de facto maritime boundary, the scene of brief but bloody naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002. Fears that this presages renewed conflict have so far proved groundless. (Pyongyang is hardly likely to give advance notice of renewed provocations.) The ROK kept its cool. Hours after the CPRF statement, President Lee said he is “waiting for North Korea to understand that the South will work with an open heart and compassion to help [it]. I believe South-North relations will improve before too long.” Others noted that the DPRK had no right unilaterally to abrogate bilateral agreements, although its readiness to do so inevitably raised wider questions as to the value or reliability of any paper it might deign to sign. The nuclear Six-Party Talks (6PT), currently still stalled, spring to mind. Making nice: hot rods for sale Yet inter-Korean ties have many levels and nuances. Even as the KPA was barking threats on TV, the first ROK government delegation since President Lee took office a year ago was visiting Pyongyang. Admittedly this was under 6PT auspices, and there was money in it. Hwang Joon-kook, South Korea's deputy nuclear envoy, spent Jan. 15-20 in the North to examine 14,800 unused nuclear fuel rods at Yongbyon, with a view to buying them for the South's own civilian nuclear power program. No decision seems to have been reached on that, but Hwang said his hosts were cooperative as long as he stuck to his brief. Political aspects were off-limits, and he was not allowed to visit the Foreign Ministry. Down on the farm: the price of failure South Koreans involved in dealing with the North must be glad (on this and all counts) not to live there, as they contemplate the fate of a key counterpart. As vice chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, Choe Sung-chol was North Korea's point man on the South. At the October 2007 summit when Roh Moo-hyun visited Pyongyang, he was constantly at the then ROK president's side. A year ago he disappeared, seemingly sacked for failing to predict or prevent North Korea-South Korea Relations 85 April 2009 the eclipse of “Sunshine” in Seoul once Lee Myung-bak took over. Now he is said to be undergoing “severe revolutionary training” at a chicken farm in Hwanghae Province. It is possible to come back from being purged thus, but it is no fun and there are no guarantees. A rocket is spotted February saw even fiercer Northern rhetoric against the South, but also – more importantly – the emergence of the issue that was to dominate the DPRK's relations with the outside world during the first quarter. Spy satellites first spotted a train carrying what appeared to be a Taepodong-2 long-range missile leaving a munitions plant south of Pyongyang in late January. Despite suggestions that it might head for a new launch site recently completed and not yet used at Tongchang-dong in the northwest, near both the sea and (interestingly) the Chinese border, in fact it trundled to the tried and tested Musudan-ri site in the northeast. Sometimes Pyongyang likes to tease what it calls the “reptile press.” On Feb. 16 (Kim Jong-il's 67th birthday, celebrated with the usual pomp, flower shows, synchronized swimming displays and so on), the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) disingenuously criticized the U.S. and others for the “vicious trick” of spreading rumors of a long-range missile test. Asserting that “space development is the independent right of the DPRK,” KCNA added coyly that “one will come to know later what will be launched in the DPRK.” A satellite, they say Not much later. On Feb. 24 KCNA published a statement by the Korean Committee of Space Technology. Following the “great success [of] putting [our] first experimental satellite Kwangmyongsong-1 into orbit at one try in August 1998” – in fact a failure; no satellite was ever detected – KCST said it “envisages launching practical satellites for communications, prospecting natural resources and weather forecast … essential for the economic development of the country [as part of] the first phase of the state long-term plan for space development.” More immediately: “The preparations for launching experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 by means of delivery rocket Unha-2 are now making brisk headway.” Unha would appear to be the civilian guise – it is hardly a disguise – for Taepodong. As was widely observed, “missile or satellite?” is not really either/or: the techology is dual-use. So this was a double test, including of the reach of a potential DPRK long-range missile. Little by little Pyongyang revealed more: more considerate than with 1998's Taepodong-1 and also its July 2006 failed firing of a Taepodong-2, both of which flew without warning. (Though the same Western satellites that this time gave us almost daily progress reports – pictures, even – of the launch preparations must have seen those two precursors coming too; yet our governments chose for whatever reason to connive with the DPRK's secrecy, and let public opinion be duly shocked. It is hard not to smell conspiracy here, especially in Tokyo.) Thus, in March, the DPRK duly notified the proper authorities – the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – of the date range (April 4-8) and coordinates for where the booster rockets were expected to fall: the first northwest of Japan, the second in mid-Pacific (in the event it fell 500 miles short). North Korea-South Korea Relations 86 April 2009 A firework fizzles Despite a chorus of pleas not to, North Korea duly fired its big rocket on April 5 – and failed, again. True, it flew some 2,000 miles, further than any previous DPRK missile. As in 1998, Pyongyang boasted of a triumph: a second satellite now circling the earth, warbling songs of the great generals Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But as in 1998, no one else can see or hear it. The U.S. Northern Command said firmly that “no object entered orbit.” Rather, the second and third stages failed to separate, ditching instead into the Pacific with their payload. World concern, always uneven, quickly fizzled too. Russian and Chinese reluctance made it unlikely that the UN Security Council will condemn severely, let alone impose sanctions (to little effect, as recent studies have unsurprisingly shown) as it did in July and October 2006 after North Korea's missile and nuclear tests. Kim Jong-il may have given Barack Obama his first “3 a.m. moment;” to be exact the U.S. president was awakened at 4:30 in Prague to be told of the launch, which he conveniently factored into his speech on nuclear disarmament later that day. But whether the Dear Leader has gained his lasting attention is another matter, given the ongoing economic crisis and West Asia's permanent arc of havoc: from Israel/ Palestine via Syria, Iraq and Iran through to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Compared to these, despite all Kim's efforts North Korea remains a backburner sort of crisis – at least for now. Much more than missiles South Korea, naturally, was among those who from the start urged the North not to launch its rocket. In fact a Taepodong-2 adds nothing directly to the DPRK's threat to the ROK, which consists rather of heavy artillery (some chemical-tipped) targeted on Seoul, short-range missiles, and the massed ranks of the 1.2 million strong Korean People's Army (KPA). That multiple menace was spelled out in detail on Feb. 23, when South Korea's Ministry of National Defense (MND) published its delayed 2008 biennial defense white paper (WP). For those further afield, MND noted that the KPA has completed deployment of a brand-new medium-range missile – not a Taepodong – said to be capable of reaching Guam. Little detail was given, so one wonders if this has been tested or how much it should be feared. What's in a name? But for South Korea, it is hard to quarrel – although local liberals do – with MND's verdict that North Korea constitutes an “immediate and grave threat.” (That seems to be the official English version, but at least one Seoul press source – the liberal daily Hankyoreh – renders it as “direct and serious”; which somehow sounds a shade less grave and immediate.) Semantics matter here. Past center-left governments had conservatives up in arms when they proposed removing the tag “main enemy” from North Korea – though in fact this dates back no further than 1995. The 2004 MND WP called it an immediate threat, while the 2006 one used the adjective grave. So the new composite designation implicitly raises the threat level – but does not say “main enemy.” Though the ROK military had problems (understandably) adapting to the North Korea-South Korea Relations 87 April 2009 “Sunshine” era – is my foe my brother, suddenly? – Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee, asked last September by the National Assembly Defense Committee if the next WP would revert to the phrase “main enemy” replied: “I don't think its right for our society to relapse into the internal conflict which North Korea desires by using the expression 'main enemy' again.” If only Lee MB's overall approach to the North displayed similar wisdom and calm. Whatever name is used, the substance of the new WP gives ample ground for concern. The main and unanswerable criticism of the “Sunshine” decade is that it failed to induce the DPRK to decrease its menace even an iota. To the contrary, this has been further beefed up. True, the KPA's huge arsenal is aging – some jets are half a century old – and fuel shortages limit flight and field training. But computer simulations may compensate, and one should not take too much comfort. For on the other hand, MND notes inter alia a new advanced Chonmaho tank, improved submarines, and new types of torpedo. Behind the lines Especially unsettling is the claim that KPA special forces, already the world's largest, have been boosted by a further 50 percent and now number 180,000 – bigger than most nations' entire armed forces. North Korea has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently deciding to compensate for its lack of high-tech hardware by a new focus on guerrilla warfare. MND policy planner Shin Won-sik put it thus: “Their aim appears to be to blur the line between friend and foe once a conflict erupts … North Korea deems it very important to be able to quickly cause disarray among its enemies.” Shin paints the conventional scenario of lightly equipped special forces infiltrating the South to strike U.S. and ROK troops from behind. But Iraq and Afghanistan also hold implications for any DPRK collapse, if it led to outside intervention. Many assume, perhaps rightly, that a hungry, oppressed northern populace would welcome South Korean, U.S., or Chinese troops as liberators. Yet after decades of brainwashing, the KPA may not see it that way or give up that easily. Like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il surely has a Plan B. Relatedly, a Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) study published on Jan. 28 estimated that up to 460,000 soldiers – three times the U.S. total in Iraq – may be needed to stabilize North Korea if it collapses and an insurgency erupts. CFR reckons South Korea and the U.S. could not handle this alone. To ram home the point, the MND WP lists the North's arsenal. This includes 40 kg of plutonium, 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, and 300 munitions factories. There are 600 Scud and 100 Rodong missiles, plus 5,200 multiple rocket launchers (300 more than before). Cyberwarfare capacity has strengthened, and many trans-DMZ tunnels remain undiscovered. The overall potential for mischief, to put it mildly, hardly bears thinking about. War talk But to return from apocalyptic endgames to the thankfully only verbal fire and brimstone of everyday DPRK rhetoric, this reached fever pitch in February. To take one example, on Feb. 13 Rodong Sinmun thundered: “If the Lee Myung-bak group intrudes even one inch into our divine territorial waters, priding itself on the groundless, unreasonable Northern Limit Line, our North Korea-South Korea Relations 88 April 2009 patience will explode with the anger of justice, and we will thoroughly crush the warmongers into the raw waters of the Yellow Sea.” But in fact the waters lay undisturbed, and the main impact of such barking was to ensure a robust response and some frank talking from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her first visit to the region in mid-February. In March, Pyongyang tried another tack. Having long shunned the UN Command (UNC), at the DPRK's request the first UNC general-level meeting in almost seven years was held at Panmunjom on March 2. It lasted barely half an hour with North Korea insisting that the U.S. and ROK cancel their joint annual drills Key Resolve and Foal Eagle (KR/FE), scheduled for March 9-20. It reiterated this demand at a second meeting on March 6, adding – as it had also warned a day earlier – that it could not guarantee the safety of ROK civilian aircraft in or near its airspace if the KR/FE war games went ahead as scheduled. Korean Air and Asiana, plus some foreign airlines, immediately rerouted flights that usually pass over DPRK waters. Seoul called this threat “inhuman”, and the ICAO issued a protest (drafted by the ROK). Border games Every year the DPRK lambastes every routine US-ROK exercise as a prelude to invasion. But this time Pyongyang went beyond words to deeds, albeit more annoying than menacing. On March 9, as KR/FE got under way, it suspended its last military telephone link with the South. This is used to notify cross-border traffic, so over 500 South Koreans were stranded in the KIC and a handful in the mothballed Kumgang tourist zone. The border reopened next day; but with the telephone line still suspended, lists of those crossing had to be laboriously hand-written and delivered. On March 13 they shut it again, marooning 730 South Koreans, three Chinese and an Australian in Kaesong. The border was reopened partially on March 16 and fully on March 17, only for restrictions to be imposed again on March 20. From March 21 traffic got back to normal, albeit still at the much reduced flows imposed by the North back in December. Curtains for Kaesong? DPRK rhetoric may sound out of control, but when it comes to action this harassment was as usual carefully calibrated. It nonetheless caused great inconvenience, above all to the 100-odd small ROK firms who have taken the plunge and invested in the KIC. Most are already suffering from the global economic downturn, so the last thing they need is North Korea making life even tougher for them. (As we noted last quarter, since December it already severely cut the number of South Koreans allowed to stay in Kaesong.) Actions like this can only stoke concern as to whether the KIC is truly viable. Northern hardliners reportedly fear it as a Trojan horse for capitalism, while the Lee government seems lukewarm at best. All this is very bad news for Hyundai Asan, which runs the KIC as well as the Mt. Kumgang tourist zone, still shuttered after nine months since the KPA killed a straying middle-aged female tourist there last July. Even before March's border blues, CEO Cho Kun-shik, an ex-MOU vice minister, had warned in February that “we are now reaching a critical situation. Unless the [Mt. Kumgang] tours resume by April, it will be difficult for us to stay afloat.” The suspension has cost Hyundai Asan, which has halved its workforce since July and lost over $72 million in revenue. If its other project at Kaesong is jeopardized too, the Hyundai group founder Chung Ju- North Korea-South Korea Relations 89 April 2009 yung's dream of business promoting reunification – a noble and feasible ideal, which Lee Myung-bak (himself a former Hyundai CEO) had in the past appeared to endorse – may be dashed. That does not seem in either Korean state's real interest. Held hostage As the quarter ended, North Korea again used Kaesong to raise the stakes and temperature. On March 30 it detained an engineer working for Hyundai Asan at the KIC. He has not been named, nor at this writing (over a week later) has any ROK authority been allowed to see him, in direct defiance of the KIC's regulations. He is accused of criticizing the socialist regime and urging a DPRK female worker to defect. (The man is single, so one wonders if romance – strictly banned, but most Southerners at the KIC are male, most Northern workers are female, and all are human – was involved.) Whatever the facts of the case, given the detention days earlier of two U.S. journalists at the DPRK-China border, the suspicion is that it suits Pyongyang to hold a few hostages; in case anyone overreacted to its rocket launch – as they did not, thankfully, despite loose talk of shooting it down – or perhaps just for general bargaining power. Yet this drives another nail in Sunshine's coffin, to mix metaphors. With neocons ascendant in both Korean capitals, and the North also preoccupied with a probable political succession process, inter-Korean relations may yet get even worse before they get better. We can only hope that NGO and private-level contacts, which continue – some are detailed in the chronology – can keep the flame of dialogue alive, until their rulers come to their senses.