South Korea-North Korea Relations

Aidan Foster-Carter
Content Type
Journal Article
Comparative Connections
Issue Number
Publication Date
September 2010
Center for Strategic and International Studies
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.
International Relations, Development, Government
Political Geography
Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea
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. Pyongyang gets away with it Having determined by mid-May that a DPRK torpedo sank the ROK corvette Cheonan on March 26, South Korea spent much of the summer seeking to convince others of this and trying to work out how to respond appropriately and effectively. Neither has proved a signal success. Skepticism began at home, and remains; inadvertently fanned by official strategy immediately after the sinking when Seoul for whatever reason (perhaps to calm the markets) played down any idea of North Korean responsibility. That vacuum allowed all kinds of conspiracy theories to swirl around South Korea‟s fetid and introverted blogosphere. With hindsight one can posit two further tactical errors by Seoul, both connected to the Joint Investigation Group (JIG), which probed the sinking. It was wise to include foreign experts – but wiser had they not all been from Western countries, either staunch allies (the US, UK, Canada, Australia) or otherwise friendly (Sweden). If the panel had included Russian and/or Chinese representatives, this would have made it harder for Moscow and Beijing to profess skepticism. Second, it is unclear why only a brief summary of the JIG report was released at first, with the full document not published until Sept. 13, almost four months later. By then, positions were entrenched and minds made up; few if any will change their view now. This is not the place to chew the Cheonan cud in full. The technical aspects are complex, the politics scarcely less so. There are precedents for past ROK governments staging supposed DPRK provocations, in at least one case with Pyongyang‟s complicity – a show of force at the DMZ in April 1996, which scared Southern electors into voting for the Right soon after, was later revealed as having been cooked up between both sides‟ intelligence services. Since the Iraq war, it would be naïve to doubt our governments‟ readiness to lie, or at least (in a phrase now notorious in Britain) to “sex up the dossier.” Might Seoul have been thus tempted? At the very least there were what the conservative Seoul daily Choson Ilbo on Sept. 10 trenchantly North Korea-South Korea Relations 80 October 2010 characterized as the ROK military‟s “little fibs and evasions to cover up its own incompetence” in the early aftermath of the sinking, which “squandered any public trust.” Full-blown conspiracy theories, by contrast, strain credulity. (A range of them can be read at If the Cheonan had been sunk by “friendly fire” from a US warship, it is inconceivable that such a cover-up could hold in today‟s media-saturated and leaky world. Or if it hit a mine or had some other accident, the ROK government had no motive to deny this and blame the North. Unlike President Kim Young-sam in 1996, President Lee Myung-bak had nothing to gain by fomenting a crisis with Pyongyang, and much to lose. By contrast, Kim Jong-il (or others) had several good reasons to show Lee sharply that he ignores the DPRK at his peril. But back to the ripples. South Korea‟s strong support from its Western allies regarding the Cheonan was not matched elsewhere in the world. As was surely predictable, both China and Russia professed uncertainty. The latter sent its team of experts, whose report has not been published and seems unlikely to be. That silence too has fed the rumor mill, with some unexpected backwash. In a much-criticised article on Aug. 31, even a well-respected establishment figure like Donald Gregg cited Russian sources to cast doubt on Seoul‟s version of events. Off-message If Gregg‟s going off-message was a shock, the same can hardly be said of China‟s wholly foreseeable skepticism. Knowing Beijing‟s general line of propping up Kim Jong-il, South Korea surely cannot have expected any different. If it did, then one must question the quality of thinking in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT), itself currently leaderless (Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan quit on Sept. 4 when it was learned that rules were rigged to get his daughter a job at the Ministry). July thus saw Seoul struggle to salvage what it could diplomatically. Both the UN Security Council and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi produced convoluted statements, mentioning the JIG findings while avoiding pointing the finger directly at Pyongyang. The latter‟s envoy to the UN, Sin Son-ho, hailed the UNSC statement as “our great diplomatic victory.” South Korea too professed itself satisfied – to do otherwise would be to admit defeat. But the strain showed when Foreign Minister Yu in Hanoi lost his patience with domestic Cheonan doubters, suggesting they go and live in North Korea if they like it so much. A similar verbal fudge looked likely at the 8th Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit in Brussels. The DPRK is not a member of ASEM, but as ever China was there to fight in Kim Jong-il‟s corner. If rallying the world behind South Korea‟s version of events was hard, crafting an effective policy response proved no easier. Some show of force was deemed necessary, so the summer saw a whole series of war games, with one-off exercises – both solo and jointly with the US – interspersed among such regular annual military exercises as Ulchi Freedom Guardian. The force of all this was blunted, however, when China took strong exception to joint US-ROK naval exercises being held in the Yellow Sea, now apparently redefined as Chinese coastal waters, as Ralph Cossa noted in PacNet #37 on Aug. 23. This compelled the allies to relocate their main joint exercise to the east rather than the west of the peninsula, a shade ignominiously. North Korea-South Korea Relations 81 October 2010 In any case, sabre-rattling can only take you so far and risks scaring the markets. On other fronts too South Korea has struggled to hew to a clear or consistent path, notably regarding economic sanctions. Seoul‟s headline response was and is a ban on trade with North Korea. As President Lee put it, exchange with the North is now “meaningless.” But the headline was all along highly misleading since from the start it exempted the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), which even before the “ban” accounted for most inter-Korean trade. Own goal? At one level it is a relief that even at the height of tension in late May neither side wanted to burn their bridges completely by letting the KIZ go under, which seemed a real possibility at the time. Yet the result is a gap between Lee‟s rhetoric and reality, not to mention an arbitrary picking of winners and losers among South Korean small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have taken what is always the risk of dealing with the North. The losers are 700-odd firms who were operating outside Kaesong, many of whom had goods made in the DPRK (so-called processing on commission or POC). It is their trade that has been halted in its tracks, with a brief initial exemption (after they protested) for goods already contracted and in the pipeline. Despite modest compensation by the government, a survey of 164 of them in September by the Korea Chamber of Commerce Industry (KCCI) found that 94 percent had suffered losses (averaging $826,000) since Seoul‟s ban on trade with North Korea. Fully two-thirds estimate that the damage is serious enough to put them out of business for good. Their DPRK partners may have fared better; reports suggest many soon replaced their ROK customers with new orders from China. By contrast, the 120 or so ROK companies invested in the KIZ are sitting relatively pretty – though hassled in the past by arbitrary border closures when Pyongyang wanted to make a point. After a period of demanding absurdly large wage increases, the North recently settled for the usual 5 percent. So now KIZ investors‟ main gripe is with their own government. In another piece of gesture politics, after May, the ROK halved the number of South Koreans allowed to stay overnight in the KIZ from 1,000 to 500. The reason cited, considerations of safety, makes no sense. Were Kim Jong-il so minded, he could hold 500 Southerners hostage as easily as 1,000. The companies have complained ever since that the restriction harms their operations and by degrees the government is relenting. So much for tough sanctions. For all practical purposes it is business as usual at Kaesong after all. One may be glad of that, but it makes palpable nonsense of President Lee‟s professed post-Cheonan policy. Indeed, continuing his strange habit of announcing hypothetical policy initiatives involving North Korea while visiting Russia (remember last year‟s gas pipeline, of which predictably no more has been heard since), on Sept. 10 Lee suggested that South Korea could in principle set up another zone like the KIZ – if the North first apologizes for the Cheonan. North Korea-South Korea Relations 82 October 2010 Signs of a thaw Apology or no, a mini-thaw is now under way in North-South relations. Like last summer, when Kim Dae-jung‟s death opened a window of what turned out to be short-lived dialogue with a high-level Northern visit to Seoul, unpredictable events lent a hand. Maybe that is the wrong adjective, as weather patterns and the vulnerability of the DPRK‟s badly deforested terrain render it prey to serious flood damage pretty much every year nowadays. After the northern part of the Korean Peninsula took a battering from severe storms, on Aug. 31 the South‟s Red Cross offered aid worth 10 billion won ($8.4 million). It had in mind emergency supplies; medical kits, food rations and the like. Replying on Sept. 4, its Northern counterpart asked instead for rice, cement, and heavy construction machinery. This put Seoul on the spot, as no doubt Pyongyang intended. South Korea used to send half a million tons of rice annually (as a loan, in theory); but none has gone North since President Lee took office early in 2008. That will now change. On Sept. 13 North Korea accepted a revised Southern aid package, to include 5,000 tons of rice and 10,000 tons of cement – but no machinery, since this could be put to military uses. The aid is due to be sent in late October. By then other irons were in the fire too. One potential obstacle, the North‟s detention of a Southern squid boat (whose crew included four Chinese) since Aug. 8 for violating DPRK east coast waters was eased when boat and crew were released without charge on Sept. 7. On Sept. 10, in the midst of their talks about aid, the DPRK Red Cross suggested holding fresh reunions of separated families to coincide with Chuseok – the Korean harvest festival, which this year fell on Sept. 22. The South responded positively, though it regarded the proposed date as too short notice. So it proved, the more so as agreement was delayed by a row over the venue. This is normally the Mt. Kumgang resort, where regular tours have now been suspended for over two years since a Southern tourist was shot dead there in July 2008. In its fury at Seoul‟s steadfast refusal to resume regular tourism unless it was allowed to send a team to probe Park Wang-ja‟s death, Pyongyang earlier this year confiscated Southern assets (private and public) at Mt. Kumgang. These include a brand-new family reunion center built by the South – which it naturally insisted be used this time. At first the North refused to agree to this unless regular tourism was resumed, raising fears that the reunions might not go ahead. In a hopeful sign, however, a compromise was found – the North yielded and the reunions will now be held at Mt. Kumgang for a week commencing Oct. 30. A few days earlier, at Seoul‟s request, the two sides will meet to discuss holding these events on a regular schedule as opposed to ad hoc. As often noted here before, at the current snail‟s pace most of the elderly persons involved will die, as many already have, without ever seeing their long-lost kin again. For the concession on venue, Pyongyang will expect some quid pro quo. It has asked for talks on resuming regular tourism. At this writing developments are ongoing, but on Oct. 4 Unification Minister Hyun In-taek – in Germany for the 20th anniversary of reunification – said the North must change its stance on the Cheonan if it wants the South to consider resuming cross-border tourism. That linkage will not be a welcome one in Pyongyang. Let us hope any predictable wrath does not put paid to the upcoming family reunions. North Korea-South Korea Relations 83 October 2010 Enter the young general Meanwhile far weightier events were taking place in Pyongyang. As widely predicted and reported, an overdue delegates‟ meeting of the ruling Workers‟ Party of Korea (WPK), scheduled for early September, was finally held on Sept. 28. At long last Kim Jong-il‟s third son and heir Kim Jong-un was unveiled to the world, as a four-star general – nice work, for a lad aged no more than 28: one wonders what the real generals think – and holding a key party post as co-vice-chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC). A few days later, father and son watched an artillery display along with another equally implausible new general, the dear leader‟s sister Kim Kyong-hui, who knows more about textiles than guns. In conclusion, while as of early October inter-Korean ties look to be on a slight upswing, this is even more fragile than usual, dependent as it is on unpredictable wider political processes. No one can yet know whether the DPRK‟s implausible succession plan will succeed. If as reputed Kim Jong-un is headstrong, he may be keener to roil the waters once more than to promote calm seas. Indeed, one theory of the Cheonan was that it was his idea or someone acting on his behalf. As President Lee prepares to welcome the leaders of the G20 to Seoul in November, he must hope that Pyongyang will resist this prime opportunity for further provocation. Cynics might even suggest that this gives Lee an incentive to cut a deal.