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Conditions for Improving Inter-Korean Relations in 2013: North Korea Must Change Stance toward Denuclearization and Cheonan Sinking

February 13, 2013

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With less than a month to go before President-elect Park Geun Hye is sworn in as South Korea’s first female president, there is still considerable speculation surrounding the prospects for the incoming Park administration’s North Korea policy. Below, Yoo Ho Ryeol, a professor of North Korea Studies at Korea University, scrutinizes the possible directions of Park’s North Korea policy. Similar to the outgoing Lee administration, resolving the North Korean nuclear issue will top the new president’s agenda. Thus far, Park has displayed a more flexible policy toward North Korea than her predecessor by calling for the restart of exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas and even a summit meeting. Yoo supports this more flexible policy but stresses that any major changes in the inter-Korean relationship will have to be tied to adequate progress on the nuclear issue. Yoo also emphasizes the need for the new government to work with its regional partners, and advocates Park’s plan to initiate a so-called “Seoul Process,” which is aimed at linking regional peace and stability with that of the Korean Peninsula. Finally, Park has shown a consistent interest in North Korean human rights, and Yoo stresses that the passage of the controversial North Korean Human Rights law, which he deems the best option South Korea has to bring about change in the country, will require the mobilization of extraordinary political pressure by the new administration. This article appeared on pages 24-27 in the January 2013 issue of NK Vision.

December 20, 2012 - President-elect Park Geun Hye speaks at Saenuri Party headquarters in Yeoido, Seoul, at the ceremony to disband her Central Election Task Force. (Yonhap photo)
In a presentation Park Geun Hye made on November 5, 2012, titled “Diplomacy of Trust and the New Korean Peninsula” (신뢰 외교와 새로운 한반도), the then-candidate for president laid out the positions and future prospects for her diplomatic, security and unification policies. The presentation was a revamped version of the ideas Park had previously revealed in her article titled, “A New Kind of Korea,” which was published in the September/October 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. In this article, Park made “trust” the central concept of her diplomatic, security and unification policies, and put forward her vision of building a “new kind of Korea” based on this concept.

While the South Korean domestic and regional political situation will play a role in influencing inter-Korean relations in 2013, the direction of the inter-Korean relationship will be considerably impacted by the new Park Geun Hye administration’s policy toward North Korea, and the direction and structure of its unification, diplomatic and security policies. Consequently, there is hope that the next administration’s policies currently being discussed and decided upon by Park’s presidential transition team will help open a new door to genuine improvement in inter-Korean relations and lasting peace in East Asia.

Resolving the North Korean Nuclear Issue and Building Peace on the Korean Peninsula

Maintaining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula will be both the central tasks and prerequisites for revitalizing inter-Korean relations in 2013. In fact, Park has presented “sustainable peace” (지속가능한 평화) as the first of her three tasks for her “new kind of Korea.” The president-elect has explained that this sustainable peace will not involve simply “keeping the peace” (지키는 평화) but will be built and maintained proactively with a basis in strong security. She has publicly stated her unwillingness to accept a second Cheonan or Yeonpyeong Island incident, and has made clear her strong stance on the Northern Limit Line and other territorial and sovereignty issues. She has also reconfirmed her willingness to invoke the right to self-defense to mobilize all possible resources to serve as a strong deterrent against the North Korean threat. While Park’s sustainable peace position recognizes that normalizing inter-Korean relations is important, the president-elect also emphasizes the importance of reacting strongly to North Korean provocations and building a sturdy national defense.

The North Korean nuclear issue is forecasted to remain the South Korean government’s most important policy issue and a key element for improving inter-Korean relations in 2013. Park has raised the possibility of seeking a channel for wide-ranging dialogue aimed at normalizing tattered inter-Korean relations, which have suffered due to the nuclear issue and the hardline South Korean reaction to North Korean provocations, and has also shown interest in holding an inter-Korean summit meeting in the future. Moreover, Park has voiced plans to open an inter-Korean cooperation office (남북교류협력사무소) in Seoul and Pyongyang to facilitate sustainable economic cooperative and socio-cultural exchanges. However, before either of these plans move forward, the South Korean government should offer large-scale economic assistance to the country only after the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. In fact, Park’s policy team appears to judge that this new vision for Korea can only occur after trust-building has occurred between the two Koreas and there has been some degree of progress on denuclearization. This new, gradual approach that links the nuclear issue with an improvement in inter-Korean relations distinguishes itself from the Lee Myung Bak administration’s “denuclearization – opening – 3000” (비핵 – 개방 – 3000) policy, which linked all inter-Korean cooperation to denuclearization without exception. That being said, there is little question that the nuclear issue would reappear as a central issue to resolve following any future improvement in North-South Korean relations. Despite opposition and warnings made by the U.S. and other members of the international community in December of last year, North Korea raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula through its launch of the long-range missile, the Eunha-3. Moreover, the resolution of the North Korean nuclear and missile issues has become more complicated as discussions on additional sanctions toward North Korea in the U.N. Security Council have coincided with leadership changes in member countries, most notably China and the U.S.

For the past 20 years, North Korea has made gradual progress in developing nuclear weapons for regime security, and the country showed off its considerable nuclear capabilities with two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The success of the Eunha-3 long-range missile test shows that the country has also made considerable progress in developing inter-continental missiles. If North Korea ultimately succeeds in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead the international community will have little choice but to recognize the country as a nuclear power. If this occurs, the military balance between the two Koreas would move irrevocably in favor of North Korea.

As a result, the incoming South Korean government must make clear that it will not compromise on North Korean denuclearization and should work to expand its cooperation with other countries. The new government may attempt to improve relations with small-scale, experimental inter-Korean economic cooperation, with the precondition that inter-Korean cooperation will improve following progress on denuclearization. However, the government must make it clear that large-scale cross-border cooperation will first require the resolution of the nuclear issue. Simultaneously, due to the fact that the North Korean regime decides on major policies in line with its practical interests and concerns, the new government will need to present a clear message about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and be able to sustainably management its basic principles. The incoming government must not give North Korea’s nuclear program and other provocations a free pass, but this will require the Park government to proactively engage in strategic dialogue with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and others before reinitiating inter-Korean dialogue. Ultimately, the Park administration will need to link these moves with its unification plans and secure the support of these countries through the promotion of cooperative diplomacy.

North Korean System Changes and Preparing for a Collapse

Park has emphasized improving inter-Korean relations through trust-building, but this will start from respecting the promises and agreements already made between the two Koreas. The two Koreas have already signed a number of agreements including the North-South Joint Statement (7.4 공동성명) on July 4, 1972, the North-South Basic Agreement (남북 기본합의서) in 1991, the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (한반도 비핵화공동선언) in 1992, the North-South Joint Statement (6.15 공동성명) on June 15, 2000, and the Summit Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity (10.4 정상선언) on October 4, 2007. However, while the above agreements were aimed at resetting inter-Korean relations and managing conflict between the two countries, they all had inherent limitations including those caused by generational change and internal dynamics, along with a wide-range of legal, institutional and financial restrictions. As such, successful trust-building between the two Koreas during the next presidential term will require Park to respect these previous agreements while making sure to place goodwill and reciprocity at the forefront of its policy implementation process.

The building of mutual trust between the two Koreas in line with plans presented by Park will require the restart of inter-Korean dialogue during her presidential term. However, the resumption of dialogue and cooperation to establish a new framework for inter-Korean relations will require a reasonable solution to the May 24 measures (measures put into place by the Lee administration restricting cooperation and trade with North Korea after the sinking of the Cheonan), which have served to guide the two Koreas’ relationship under the Lee administration. During her campaign, Park consistently called for a North Korean apology and acknowledgement of responsibility for recent provocations, and demanded specific measures to prevent such incidents from occurring again as a precondition for resuming tourist trips to Mt. Kumgang. Thus, inter-Korean dialogue will only resume with a change of position on the part of the Kim Jong Un regime, a move which could then lead to a new and gradual improvement in relations between the two countries. If the Kim Jong Un regime displays a prolonged readiness for change, the incoming Park government will be able to promote a sustainable North Korea policy aimed at both securing peace on the Korean Peninsula and strengthening inter-Korean relations and cooperation.

North Korean’s system of hereditary succession has resulted in Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, to grasp power in the country. While Kim Jung Un has succeeded in securing his status as the head of the party, military and political system following the 4th Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference (제4차 당대표자회) on April 11, 2012, it is still up in the air whether he will be able to maintain the stability of both his rule and the larger North Korean system. Despite the claims of North Korean propaganda, the possibility still exists that the North Korean ruling class could shatter into disunion, and the conflict between the regime and its people still appears difficult to resolve.

The Need for Effective Security Management

The survival of the North Korean system, which is directly connected with the life and death of the Kim Jung Un regime, is an issue involving the country’s internal structural contradictions and questions surrounding reform and opening that the regime itself will have a difficult time resolving. Furthermore, the uncertainties of the North Korean domestic political situation during the succession process could reveal itself through unpredictable provocations toward South Korea or the outside world. Observers must be attentive to the duality displayed by the regime of allowing certain members of the Kim family to lavish in public attention and the appearance of moving toward reform on the one hand, while on the other hand tightening control over the country through crackdowns on defectors in an effort to promote national solidarity. If the Kim Jong Un regime fails to resolve the current economic troubles through measures like the economic improvement measures passed on June 28, 2010, soon after Kim Jong Un gained power, the regime could move to deflect the dissatisfaction and conflict among the general population to other areas by conducting provocations against South Korea.

The past five years have seen a sufficient building up of South Korean deterrence capabilities against a potential North Korean attack, so there is little chance that North Korea will mount a large-scale military provocation in 2013. However, there is always the possibility the country will mount small-scale provocations to score political points. As a result, the incoming Park government will need to be alert to such a possibility and devise strategic ways to deal with it, and will ultimately need to strengthen its diplomatic ties with the U.S., China, Russia and the U.N. until a resolution can be found through inter-Korean dialogue. Moreover, it is imperative to sufficiently promote the preventative nature of South Korea’s military deterrence strategy, coupled with the effective management of a security “control tower,” such as the establishment of the “National Security Office” (국가안보실) Park promised during her election campaign. In order to promote the stable improvement of inter-Korean relations, the incoming government will need to fully ready its preparations on the off chance North Korea will mount an intentional act of provocation or there is an accidental clash between the two sides. In short, the incoming government will have to implement its policies with the knowledge that it will take a considerable amount of time to both see real improvement in North-South Korean relations and secure peace and stability in East Asia.

The incoming government will have no need to directly comment on the North Korean domestic situation or openly incite the North Korean regime to conflict. That being said, the new government must not ignore the North Korean human rights issue. Fortunately, Park has already shown her willingness to see through the passing of the North Korean Human Rights Law, which has been the focus of severe conflict between the South Korean ruling and opposition parties. However, the law’s failure to pass the National Assembly in both the 17th and 18th congresses because of the perception the law is the cornerstone of so-called “South-South conflict” (남-남 갈등) means that it will be difficult to pass the law without the new government mobilizing extraordinary political clout. The incoming government will have to prepare for the possibilities of gridlock during the 19th National Assembly and a show of force against the bill by those outside the political sphere. Armed with the knowledge that the NKHR Law is the most effective measure to pursue change in North Korea from the outside, Park and her team will need to embark on a campaign to gain as much support for the bill from the National Assembly, the general public, and the mass media as it can.

Stable Management of the Regional Situation

The medium- to long-term future of the Korean Peninsula over the next five years appears like it will be a very unstable and dynamic one, and inter-Korean relations during this period will most likely be influenced the most by regional political changes. The U.S. and the international community have continued to strongly condemn and implement sanctions against North Korea for its provocations, including the recent long-range missile test. They have been seeking ways to resume the stalled Six-Party Talks, which is considered the only way to peacefully end North Korea’s nuclear program, but they could prepare a new set of strategies toward countries in the region to deal with the issue if the talks do not resume.

Distrust toward North Korea grew considerably within the Obama administration after North Korea unilaterally conducted a missile launch following a bilateral agreement the two countries made on February 29, 2012. As a result, even if the newly re-elected Obama administration does decide to conduct a new round of talks with the country, the administration will likely demand a sea-change in North Korean behavior. Moreover, U.S. officials will probably continue to work closely with the new governments of South Korea and Japan while leaving unchanged the American position of not re-examining the loosening or removal of preconditions for North Korea’s return to the Six Party Talks or on preexisting North Korean sanctions. The possibility still remains that the Chinese government’s passive attitude could result in a failure to pass additional North Korean sanctions currently being discussed in the U.N. Security Council. This could in turn drive the U.S. to strengthen its ties with South Korea, Japan and other Western countries and lead to the formation of a new dynamic of antagonism in East Asia.

Meanwhile, Six Party Talks participants will begin moves toward resuming dialogue in early 2013, but there are a number of issues that need to be resolved before talks can begin taking place. These issues could stall the talks before specific discussions take place on North Korean demands of loosening sanctions and building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. As a result, an improvement in inter-Korean relations will be dependent on the ability of the countries concerned to secure among themselves a momentum for resuming talks.

The incoming government will need to review the pros and cons of the North Korean and unification policies initiated by the past Lee Myung Bak, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations. Park and her team will need to seek out practical policy options while making clear that the South Korean government’s response to unprovoked provocations by North Korea will be firm, along with a strategy that can transform the current crisis situation into a process toward unification. During her election campaign, Park made establishing an “East Asia Peace – Cooperation Plan” one of her campaign pledges. This plan is focused on attaining sustainable peace and development in East Asia by pursuing trust-building, security cooperation, economic – social cooperation, and human security with other countries in the region. This can be seen as an East Asian version of the Helsinki Process (the “Seoul Process”), and the plan is focused on dynamically transforming the current overall paradigm controlling the North-South Korean relationship.

The Helsinki Process refers to the process leading up to the signing of a 1975 treaty between NATO and Warsaw-pact countries aimed at achieving European security cooperation. The treaty included the trust-building measures needed for maintaining peace in Europe. Likewise, the Seoul Process would be used to lower the potential for Sino-American confrontation in East Asia and make Seoul the center for building peace in the region. By linking peace between the two Koreas with peace in the region at large, the Seoul Process would provide the opportunity for sustainable peace and cooperation to take root in the region. In order for the incoming government to ensure the success of the Seoul Process, however, Park will have to make sure that the interests of all countries involved are preserved and that there is a wide-spread regional consensus over the continuance of the East Asia order formed after the end of the Cold War.

Dealing with diplomatic issues like inter-Korean relations requires one to continuously revamp foreign policies in accordance with changes by a counterpart or in the region. During the recent presidential election campaign, while the Saenuri Party introduced the concept of “trust,” it presented its own policy positions and what the party viewed as the major policy tasks in the fields of unification, diplomacy and security. However, the party will have to link these in a flexible and systematic fashion with the vision, positions, policies and strategies of the incoming Park government. At the same time, the party will have little choice but to move forward with proactive legislation in the National Assembly to supplement the legal and institutional tools for improving North-South relations and provide it with sufficient financial backing. Moreover, it will have to reexamine its campaign promises on the pressing diplomatic, security and unification issues related to North-South relations from a practical and multi-dimensional perspective. Furthermore, while the improvement of North-South Korean relations will require a consideration of the situation in North Korea and East Asia, it will also demand the flexible and systematic cooperation between the central players tasked with driving forward South Korea’s policy toward North Korea. Perhaps most of all, however, the improvement of inter-Korean relations and the building of a new order in East Asia will require the new president-elect’s display of political power and leadership.

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