Ahead of a dialogue between the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Korea Foundation, a long-time observer asks if tensions on the Korean Peninsula can be eased.
The two Koreas have been at war with each other since 1950 when the Korean War broke out. Since then there have been numerous occasions when tensions have risen and war was threatened. Korea’s neighbours cannot live with continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula, particularly while North Korea is developing its nuclear capability and its ballistic missile delivery system.
Dialogue with the North, which was attempted in the Six Party Talks, is necessary but where can it begin? The US feels betrayed by the North which used the Six Party Talks to gain time to develop its nuclear program and insists on nuclear disarmament as a precondition. China has supported the North with fuel and food supplies and was well positioned to influence the North. Chinese attempts to cajole the North to adopt economic reforms to ease its isolation provoked the North’s hostility, particularly after its ally in the northern regime Jang Song-taek was executed in December 2013. China has lost influence with the North, leaving the South in a better position to promote dialogue. The South, however, faces difficulties of its own.
The engagement of the North in dialogue has been attempted by two Korean presidents in the past. Kim Dae-jung initiated the “sunshine policy” over 1998-2003 which was initially intended to reduce tensions on the Peninsula and to bring about coexistence between the two Koreas before eventual reunification. President Kim managed to hold a summit meeting with the North’s Kim Jong-il in June 2000 which at the time held great promise. However, there was no follow up from this summit which was largely a one-off event with little impact upon relations between North and South.
Hopes for reduced tensions were dashed when in June 2002 the North staged a maritime clash with the South over the Northern Line in the Western Sea, which the North refuses to accept. One South Korean patrol boat was sunk in this clash which was regarded as a serious provocation by Seoul.
Nonetheless, Kim Dae-jung’s engagement of the North was continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun who was president from 2004-2008. President Roh was buoyed by support from a new generation of South Koreans who had not experienced the Korean War and longed for reunification with the North. These supporters of President Roh had a different view of the US and the American alliance and if the older generation saw the alliance as necessary and America as a saviour they regarded the alliance as an encumbrance and the US as an obstruction to reunification. Roh and his supporters argued that the North was under threat from the US and if the South could detach itself from the US relations could improve and the two Koreas could settle their problems without outside interference. In this spirit President Roh arranged a summit with Kim Jong-il in 2007 but this summit was even more inconsequential than the first. Roh’s policies polarized the South and the president was accused of undermining South Korea’s security.
The absence of perceived benefits in Roh’s policy was one reason for the election of the opposition leader Lee Myung-bak as president. However, while he was president in 2010 the North staged two provocations which transformed the mood in the South and put paid to notions of engagement, at least for a while. In March 2010 there was the sinking of the South Korea corvette the Cheonan with the loss of 46 sailors in the area of the Northern Line. In November 2010 Northern artillery shelled the island of Yeongpeong while the South was accused of conducting military exercises in the contested area around the Northern Line.
These events were linked to the emergence of Kim Jong-un as leader in the North who had to prove himself according to the rite of passage peculiar to the Northern regime. They showed that the North had little interest in moving closer to the South and that it would if necessary deliberately foster animosity and hostility to keep Seoul at a distance. This was no fertile soil for policies of engagement.
Why is the North unresponsive? The difficulty is that engagement threatens the survival of the regime in the North; this is not clearly understood by those South Koreans who seek nationalist fulfilment in reunification. The Northern regime relies on isolation and suppression for survival which means keeping the South at a distance and avoiding contact. The Northern regime has no other basis for legitimacy other than the fragile myth it has created of the god like status of its leaders. The regime has failed the performance test of economic progress and the welfare of the people so that contact with the South would simply expose its glaring failures and the fantasies the regime relies upon for its survival. For these reasons South Korean efforts to engage the North often stimulated provocative reactions from Pyongyang which were intended to limit contact or to extract concessions.
The current President Park Geun-hye has her hands tied as in May 2010 President Lee imposed sanctions on the North that terminated exchanges and most business and commercial contacts. The North demands that these sanctions be lifted, particularly those limiting commercial links, before any dialogue can begin while the South insists on an apology for the provocations.
Nonetheless, there has been some movement as on 25 August 2015 the two Koreas agreed to conduct high-level talks which were held at vice minister level on 11 December. These talks focussed on family reunions which the South has been pressing, the reopening of tours to Mt. Geumgan which were terminated by the North in 2008 and the lifting of sanctions on the North.
There are opportunities for the South to engage the North by exploiting the Pyongyang elite’s desire for profit in a way which would be more difficult for the regime to curtail. The South operates the Gaesong industrial park with the North which, according to its Southern managers, has been a rare success. Established in 2004, some 124 South Korean companies operate there with 54,000 North Korean workers producing mainly shoes and textiles. Gaesong provides the North with $500 million annually in wage income so the regime would think twice before closing it. In 2013 the North limited access to the site but lifted restrictions in the following year. Gaesong indeed is too profitable to play around with. President Park has expressed an interest in upgrading and internationalising Gaesong by involving more South Korean companies and foreign firms as well. An expansion of the complex could engage the financial interests of the Pyongyang party elite as the economy in the North becomes increasingly marketised. In this way the South may trigger a process of change in the North which would eventually ease tensions on the Peninsula.
Leszek Buszynski is Professor and Lecturer at the National Security College at the Australian National University. This article can be republished under a Creative Commons License.