South Korea-North Korea Relations

Aidan Foster-Carter
Content Type
Journal Article
Comparative Connections
Issue Number
Publication Date
March 2010
Center for Strategic and International Studies
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.
Political Geography
Japan, Asia, South Korea, North Korea, Korea, Korean Peninsula
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. Unhappy anniversary A new century brought a new breakthrough. This June will see the 10th anniversary of the first- ever inter-Korean summit, when the South's then President Kim Dae-jung – a veteran democrat, and the first man of Jeolla to enter the Blue House – flew to Pyongyang to meet North Korea's “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Paving the way for that, the road north was opened by a very different character – Chung Ju-yung, the tough elderly northern-born founder of the Hyundai conglomerate (chaebol). It was Chung's drive and cash – over and under the table – that persuaded Kim Jong-il in 1998 to take the revolutionary step of opening the southeast of his realm, the famed Diamond Mountains (Kumgangsan), to Southern tourism. That ushered in a decade of “sunshine” between the Koreas, which remains controversial. For critics this was one-sided at best. The South gave; the North took. No progress was made on demilitarization, indeed the contrary; North Korea declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Reacting to this and for other reasons, in December 2007 South Korean voters swung right. The leader they chose, Lee Myung-bak, ditched plans for wider cooperation agreed weeks before by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun at the second Pyongyang summit even though these appeared substantial and mutually beneficial, at least to this writer. More generally, Lee made future relations conditional on North Korea's taking real steps toward nuclear disarmament. As Comparative Connections has duly chronicled since then, inter-Korean relations predictably worsened, although since last August they have improved a little. North Korea-South Korea Relations 75 April 2010 Against this backcloth, June's 10-year anniversary looks unlikely to see much inter-Korean celebration. The first quarter of the new year and decade not only brought no progress, but ended with the North threatening brazenly to confiscate Southern assets at Mount Kumgang, itself mothballed since the fatal shooting of a Southern tourist in July 2008. Meanwhile, on March 26, a mystery explosion sank an ROK Navy corvette in disputed waters off the West coast, with the loss of 46 lives. If the DPRK turns out to have been responsible, as seems increasingly probable, inter-Korean relations can only get worse – perhaps ominously so. Reconciliation and cooperation? 2010 began well, if only on paper. As we reported last quarter, North Korea's regular New Year editorial, carried in its three main daily papers (those of the Party, armed forces, and youth league), sounded a less bellicose note than usual. Noting the upcoming anniversary of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration – Pyongyang always lauds this document, rather than the summit as such – which it hailed as bringing “great, unprecedented successes,” the editorial urged that “national reconciliation and cooperation should be promoted actively,” including “travel and contacts between people from all walks of life.” As we commented at the time, “Fine words, but do they mean it?” These editorials are often described as setting policy for a new year, but in this case it seems more of a smokescreen. Nothing Pyongyang has done, as opposed to said, in the first quarter of 2010 suggests it is turning over a new leaf; one could say the same of Seoul. Rather, it is the mixture as before. Juche jihad Indeed, a fortnight later Pyongyang had reverted to its more customary mode of threatening fire and brimstone. True, it was not unprovoked. The North could hardly stay silent while the Seoul “reptile press” was openly discussing joint contingency plans with the US for various scenarios, including collapse of the DPRK. Under the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun, the ROK had hitherto refused to go beyond an outline concept plan for any such situation, known as ConPlan 5029. Lee Myung-bak had no such inhibitions and acceded to Washington's wish for a detailed fully operational plan: OPlan 5029. (This was promptly hacked in December, presumably by the North which has both an obvious motive and known cyberwar capacity.) On Jan. 15, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) issued a rare statement by the National Defense Commission (NDC) – the DPRK's top executive body, ranking above the merely civilian Cabinet. The statement did not pull its punches against what it called “a scenario for toppling the system in the DPRK jointly drafted by the American master and his stooge.” The full text can be read at It threatened “a sacred nationwide retaliatory battle to blow up the stronghold of the south Korean authorities including Chongwadae” – i.e., the Blue House, South Korea's version of the White House. Earlier unofficial translations used the phrase “holy war,” which made a few headlines. For good measure the NDC also demanded the immediate disbandment and severe punishment of those “tricksters” and “plot-breeding mechanisms” the Unification Ministry (MOU) and National Intelligence Service (NIS). And it drew a wider lesson: “The army and people of the DPRK regarded from the outset the improved north-south relations and the resumption of North Korea-South Korea Relations 76 April 2010 dialogue touted by riff-raffs of south Korea including its chief executive as sheer hypocrisy and have followed their rhetoric with vigilance without even a moment's slackness.” Yet other Northern actions suggested that “hypocrisy” is not all on one side. This fiery talk came the very day that Seoul confirmed Pyongyang's belated acceptance of its stingy offer, made last October, of 10,000 tons of maize. The first food aid for two years, this is a far cry from the 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer that the South used to send North (ostensibly on loan terms) during the previous decade of the “sunshine” policy. Kaesong: mixed messages A day earlier, the North also proposed talks with the South on their two cross-border joint ventures, each located just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on opposite sides of the peninsula. The Mt. Kumgang tourist resort on the east coast has seen all tours suspended by Seoul since July 2008, when the Korean People's Army (KPA) shot dead a female ROK tourist who strayed off-limits and then refused to allow the South to investigate her death. By contrast, the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ; the South calls this the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, or GIC), an hour's drive north of Seoul, is a going concern where over 100 small South Korean firms (SMEs) employ about 42,000 Northern workers to produce a range of goods. Three days of talks on and in the KIZ were held on Jan. 19-21, but left the South puzzled and dismayed. After months of harassment in the first half of 2009 (see past issues), latterly the North had seemed to grasp that this is self-defeating. In December, both Koreas sent a joint team to look at industrial parks in China and Vietnam. Pyongyang appeared to have got the message: the competition is tough, so the two Koreas had better pull together. Apparently not. The talks ended without agreement, though they agreed to meet again on Feb. 1. To Southern surprise, the North resurrected the demand it first made last May, but had dropped since, for a 300 percent wage rise from the present basic monthly $58 (most in fact earn a bit more, with overtime). No one could deny this is a low wage, although for working conditions these must be the best factory jobs in North Korea. But wage competitiveness is the KIZ's main advantage. The North's demand would render the zone wholly uneconomic and sound its death-knell. That may well be what some in Pyongyang want. As always, it is worth reading North Korea's own words. KCNA reported the KIZ meeting at The contradictions are glaring. First, the North says that “laws and regulations on the KIZ, contract on lease of land, wages and taxation … should be settled in conformity with international standards,” though it immediately adds “and the peculiarities and actual conditions of the zone.” Yet two paragraphs later they claim that “the south side has viciously pursued the confrontation policy to seriously get on the [North]'s nerves and is opposing even negotiations on the increase of wages for the workers in the KIZ, which are very paltry at present, while refusing to pay more under unreasonable pretexts of “financial resources” and the like.” If this makes sense at all, it seems that for Pyongyang local peculiarities trump international standards. But realistically they cannot do so, in a global market – not to mention a lingering economic crisis, and the debt-laden balance sheets of most small ROK firms. North Korea-South Korea Relations 77 April 2010 No Six-Party Talks till sanctions are lifted Back in militant mode, on Jan. 17 DPRK media showed Kim Jong-il inspecting a large-scale joint drill of the army, navy and air force. The “dear leader” often visits military bases, but this is the first time he has been shown watching the KPA in action. Some photographs of this drill showed road signs with South Korean place names, lest anyone fail to get the message. Militancy also continued over the nuclear issue. On Jan. 18, Pyongyang said that it will not return to the Six-Party Talks unless United Nations sanctions are lifted. Or in KCNA's rather convoluted words, “If the six-party talks are to take place again, it is necessary to seek whatever way of removing the factor of torpedoing [sic] them.” Otherwise this would be like “talks between defendant and judge.” The DPRK Foreign Ministry also reiterated that the way forward is first to conclude a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement – a longstanding Pyongyang demand. Seen from Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, this is back to front on both counts. North Korea must first recommit to denuclearization, this time with substantive steps to show it is serious. Only then can sanctions be lifted, and only then would a peace treaty have any meaning. It is hard to see how this impasse can be overcome. (Looking back as of early April, the word “torpedoing” is an arresting choice of metaphor. KCNA used it again on March 23, three days before the Cheonan sank, with the headline: “US to Blame for Torpedoing Process for Solution to N. [nuclear] Issue.”) Sea shells Further raising tensions, from late January the KPA started firing artillery, albeit into the sea, in its own waters, and with due notice. On four occasions between Jan. 25 and Feb. 19, the DPRK declared a series of no-sail zones for varied time periods in western waters. Some of these adjoin two ROK-held islands near the Northern coast, Baengnyeong and Daecheong. For three days (Jan. 27-29) volleys of artillery shells were fired near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) – the de facto western sea border since the 1953 Armistice, unilaterally drawn by the UN to reflect the actual status quo after the belligerents could not agree. Having made little fuss for decades, in recent years Pyongyang has waxed irate about the NLL and proposed an alternative boundary line further to the south. But this would place Baengnyeong and other Southern-held islands inside Northern waters, hence it is obviously not a serious proposition. Though no shells actually crossed the NLL, on the first day the South called this provocative and fired back – but again only within its own waters south of the line. By late February, a Southern defense spokesman called the latest shelling “a routine situation that is part of the North's winter military exercise,” adding that it may go on till the end of March. Routine or not, a report submitted to the ROK National Assembly's Defense Committee on Feb. 19 said Pyongyang has reinforced its military along the west coast of the peninsula and strengthened military drills. This again looks more significant in hindsight than it appeared at the time. North Korea-South Korea Relations 78 April 2010 Where to meet? The shelling did not stop the Koreas talking about their two joint venture zones just north of the DMZ. But they got nowhere, being far apart on the agenda, format, and venue for talks. On Kaesong, the North suggested that the South's issues like smoother cross-border passage were best left to military-level talks, which in the past have handled issues relating to the border and security. The South agreed, proposing to meet on Feb. 23 at the border village of Panmunjom, the venue for all military meetings hitherto. The North then counter-proposed March 2, at Kaesong, but the South said it will insist on Panmunjom, rather than set the precedent of holding a military meeting inside North Korea. With both venue and agenda still in dispute, the chances of progress on substantive issues looked remote. Separately, South Korea with some misgivings accepted the North's request for talks on resuming tours to Mount Kumgang. At talks in Kaesong on Feb. 8, North Korea asked for tours to restart from April 1, breezily declaring that the South's three conditions – a probe into the shooting, efforts to ensure no repetition, and a cast-iron safety guarantee – had been met. But as the North well knows, the South's key demand is to send in its own investigating team – which the North resolutely refuses. The Northern side proposed continuing the talks on Feb. 12, but the South declined unless the North accepts their three conditions first. You will present yourselves for our inspection Rather than compromise, much less yield, North Korea then typically upped the ante. On March 4, its Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC), which handles cross-border exchanges, warned that “if the south Korean government continues to block the travel route while making false accusations, we will be left with no choice but to take extreme measures.” A fortnight later on March 18, the APPC notified MOU and tour operator Hyundai Asan that it would “conduct a survey of south Korean property in the Mt. Kumgang area from March 25 … All assets of those who fail to cooperate with the measure will be confiscated and they will be unable to visit Mount Kumgang again.” Under such duress, representatives of Hyundai and other investors had no choice but to comply. The ROK government did not attend as such, although the state-run Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) sent a team, presumably to keep an eye on things. KTO also has some property of its own at Kumgang. The assets involved are substantial. Hyundai Asan has a lease on the Mt. Kumgang site until 2052, and has already paid $487 million for the privilege since 1998. That is just fees as Hyundai et al have also had to bear all the costs of construction and equipment. Altogether some 37 ROK firms have invested a total of $316 million in facilities at Kumgang: hotels, a hot spring spa, a golf course, restaurants and more. Obviously all are suffering as their cash flow has dried up after 21 months of closure and some are close to bankruptcy. Who will invest ever again? Yet Pyongyang is mistaken if it thinks Lee Myung-bak will yield to such blackmail, or that the companies have any power to pressure him. (Since Chung Ju-yung's death, Hyundai has split North Korea-South Korea Relations 79 April 2010 into separate units and the rump that owns Asan has no political clout these days.) As one Southern investor noted, “The North is threatening to seize our firms' real estate while talking about attracting large amounts of foreign investment. What South Korean or foreign business will make new investments in the North under these circumstances?” The actual inspections, which began March 25 and ended March 31, were conducted by a group of 20 DPRK officials, including KPA officers. Unlike the brusqueness seen in equivalent theatricals at the KIZ in 2008, the atmosphere was businesslike with no menacing language. Whereas firms in the KIZ were asked how long it would take them to pack up and leave, the question at Kumgang was how soon they could begin operations if tours resumed. Even so, menace is implicit. The North also had no mandate to “inspect” a 13-story state of the art family reunion center, conceived in happier times but barely used as yet, built by the ROK government for $53 million. What next? If as rumors suggest the North lets Chinese tour firms operate at Kumgang, it would create an interesting three-way spat. Chinese investors are buying DPRK mines and infrastructure, but stolen property is something else. A strange sinking Even as inspections began at Kumgang-san, they were overshadowed by a shock from the other side of the peninsula. At about 9.30 pm on Friday March 26, the ROK Navy (ROKN) Pohang class corvette Cheonan – one of 24 similar domestically built craft in the fleet; 1,200 tons and 88 meters long, carrying torpedoes and missiles and a crew of 104 – suffered a mysterious explosion that tore a hole below the waterline in the rear hull, shutting off the engine and power. The ship sank within two hours. Those who were able jumped into the chilly waters. Fifty-eight were rescued, but 46 are missing and presumed dead. (A week later none had been found, but the toll had risen by 10: one navy diver died, and a fishing boat roped in to assist the search sank with the likely loss of its nine-man crew, apparently after a collision.) All this happened in inshore waters a mile off Baengnyeong – the ROK's northwesternmost island, far out on a limb close to the DPRK coast and nearer to Pyongyang than to Seoul. As noted above, North Korea disputes these seas, which have seen three fatal firefights in the past decade – the most recent only in November. In all but one the KPA came off the worse. Unsurprisingly, many at first feared the worst. Hours before, in rhetoric extravagant even by Pyongyang's usual standards, the KPA General Staff had threatened “unprecedented nuclear strikes of [our] invincible army” against “the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet warmongers” if they sought to bring down the DPRK. Amid initial confusion, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak hastily convened a security Cabinet meeting, while on Wall Street jitters caused both the ROK won and the general stock index to fall slightly and briefly. Yet, despite natural suspicions Seoul kept its cool, with no hasty rush to judgment or action. The next day brought more calm, if not clarity. Navy divers were swiftly on the scene, but two days later they were still being hampered by bad weather and strong currents. It will take up to a month to investigate (and if possible salvage) the Cheonan and determine what really happened. It lies in waters only about 20 meters deep, so one hypothesis was that it struck a reef or rocks – North Korea-South Korea Relations 80 April 2010 or perhaps an old mine left over from the Korean War. Another theory is that munitions on board exploded. Still another, according to anguished relatives who claimed to be quoting survivors, is that the vessel – built in 1989 – was old and leaky. ROK Defense Minister Kim Tae-young commented after visiting the scene that the boat “appeared to have been split in half.” Indeed it was, with the two halves ending up almost 200 meters apart. To any expert, including military who briefed off the record, that suggested a torpedo strike. Not the North, says Seoul Yet for several crucial days at first, this was not the line that South Korea wanted to put out. The morning after, an unnamed senior official in Seoul said that “given the investigations … so far, it is the government's judgment that the incident was not caused by North Korea, although the reason for the accident has not been determined yet.” Without being unduly conspiratorial, such a comment was in any event prudent – not to say essential. Had this been indubitably a Northern attack, it would have put the South in a very awkward spot. Not to respond would be read in both halves of Korea as weakness; yet a hasty or excessive riposte would run a real risk of rapid escalation into the apocalypse of a second Korean War. As it was, the Cheonan's sister ship Sokcho, rather than rushing to the rescue, fired for five minutes at an unidentified object seen on radar heading north. This was later said to have been probably a flock of birds, but some wonder if it was a KPA semi-submersible craft. By reacting as it did, the South bought time, calmed the all-important markets, and took a potentially very dangerous immediate security situation off the boil – whatever the truth. This came at a political price, however. As grieving relatives demanded answers and had guns pointed at them for their pains, the Seoul press and public opinion roundly criticized the authorities for poor communications, ineffectual response, and secrecy. A week later, the survivors were still being kept from the media. On April 2, Defense Minister Kim finally said what many were by now thinking – that a torpedo was the likeliest cause. He also admitted that two KPA submarines were in the area during March 24-27, but still downplayed the idea of any DPRK involvement. If he is serious this suggests friendly fire, which is hard to credit. At this writing the mystery remains. It may well suit Seoul for the ambiguity to continue, as is possible if even eventual salvage proves inconclusive. But silencing the survivors arouses suspicion, and in a democracy – many will be conscripts – cannot be maintained indefinitely. Some claim it would be irrational for North Korea to do this, yet the North does much that is hard to fathom. Plausibility is not proof, but this could be a carefully targeted escalation from the three naval skirmishes of the past decade. If those were scratches, this is a gouge. It smacks of desperation, and may even relate in some obscure way to the succession process. Kim Jong-eun is reputedly a hothead who has already been slapped down by his father for meddling in military matters, so this could be his bright idea of how to make waves. Presumably the message to Lee Myung-bak is that the North is not to be trifled with, and a warning that if it chooses it could rain hard on his parade: such as the G20 summit, which Seoul will host in mid-November. More broadly, Lee's general shunning of the North must have left it feeling cornered; this amid a delicate succession and a botched currency reform. North Korea-South Korea Relations 81 April 2010 Give the North a card to play On March 25, the day before the Cheonan tragedy, South Korea's leading daily, the center-right JoongAng Ilbo, published a “Viewpoint” article under the headline: “Give the North a card to play.” Author Yi Jung-jae, an economics editor at the paper, fretted that, The Lee Myung-bak administration's so-called diplomacy of practicality has no tolerance for North Korea. Inter-Korean exchanges have been deadlocked since the shooting of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang in July 2008. The number of people traveling between the countries plunged by 35 per cent last year from 2008. Humanitarian aid came in at 63.7 billion won, half the amount in 2008. Discussions on developing North Korean resources have not even come up. Resources are Yi's particular worry, with Chinese firms investing and Kim Jong-il expected to visit Beijing soon. He quotes an unnamed former vice minister: “If we just sit around, we probably will see all North Korean resources end up in Chinese hands.” Of the Kumgang standoff, he says, “This has produced no progress at all. But a game of cat and mouse is no good for either country.” His recommendation: “The government should make concessions and call for joint development of natural resources.” And he ends with a warning: “If we don't do something soon, Kim will not be the only one to pay for the consequences.” What next? Yi may have been more prescient than he knew. If the Cheonan was sunk by the North, it raises the question: What card will the South now play? With local elections scheduled for June 2, Lee Myung-bak's hardline image and the fortunes of his ruling conservative Grand National Party (GNP) render inaction hardly a viable option. Aid to the North has shriveled on his watch, so there is scant aid left to cut. He could close the Kaesong zone, as he has all but done at Kumgang. Yet, if anything, that would please Pyongyang's hardliners. Already one can predict that the moment the rear hull of the Cheonan is raised, probably packed with the corpses of trapped young sailors – desperately trying to flee, or caught in their bunks – will see a huge outpouring of national emotion (never in short supply in Korea) and potential volatility. A president whose whole shtick is hands-on and can-do will be in the firing line. There may even be pressure for an Israeli-style targeted reprisal strike, say on one of Kim Jong-il's many villas. Let us hope, against hope, that North Korea really did not do it.