Laydeez and gennlemen! I hereby claim the prize for the Article Most Instantly Overtaken By Events. Any other bidders? There may well be. On Planet Pundit, this goes with the territory.
On Monday August 24, with North and South Korea still huddled in seemingly interminable talks at Panmunjom, the Guardian asked me to pen a piece for their “Comment is Free” pages. I wrote at Chollima speed, submitting it at 1415 BST. Lightly edited, it went live at 1636.
Hopefully this still has uses, for background analysis and little-known details. But within an hour the inter-Korean deadlock, which I took as my starting-point, was finally broken.
Obviously I’m glad. As a firm believer in Antonio Gramsci’s watchword “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will,” it’s nice when gloom and doom turns out to be misplaced.
But misplaced, or postponed? Already, within a few days of tensions easing – that at least is certain, and a great relief – there is little agreement on what really happened on the peninsula last weekend. In particular there are widely differing views as to which side came out on top.
Was this a win for President Park Geun-hye, who halfway through her five-year term has so far achieved precious little with the North or on any front?
If so, it was hard-won personally. Such was the strain of two successive rounds of all-night talks – an insane way to do business, albeit routine for international bankers and lawyers in today’s damaging long-hours culture – that President Park burst a capillary in her eye. She wasn’t negotiating personally, of course, but obviously she and other senior officials had to keep the same crazy hours in order to keep track, as well as brief and be briefed. A good many senior figures in both Seoul and Pyongyang must still be catching up on their shut-eye.
Was it worth it? One camp sees this as a win for Park: she held firm and hung tough. Yonhap,
South Korea’s quasi-official news agency, opined: “The deal gave a big boost to Park at a time when she deseparately (sic) needed public support to push through her reform agenda.”
UCSD’s Stephan Haggard, in a valuable series of real-time series posts from Seoul where he was attending a conference, agrees that it’s “hard to see this as anything but a North Korean stand-down.” Pacific Forum-CSIS’s Ralph Cossa concurs: “South Korea just said we are not taking this anymore. They are playing hardball with them, and I think essentially the North Koreans blinked.”
Victor Cha (CSIS, Georgetown University and formerly the George W Bush administration) is of the same mind. Also, he reckons he knows exactly why the North blinked. In an article for Foreign Policy headlined “Kim Jong Un Versus The Loudspeaker,” he claims: “The recent Korean crisis ended because Pyongyang is terrified of Seoul’s propaganda broadcasts.”
So far, so unanimous: One-up for Seoul. No way, says Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea. In his altogether more pessimistic take, it was North Korea that came out on top of a situation it had deliberately “created with malice aforethought” by planting those mines in the DMZ:
“(The two Koreas) came, they talked, and they signed, but they solved nothing … Pyongyang didn’t apologize, and Seoul will continue to pay. The loudspeakers will be switched off. There will not be an all-out war, and probably never would have been. The limited, incremental war will resume, only at a time and place more to Pyongyang’s advantage.”
… the North reportedly hardly raised the issue of (Ulchi Freedom Guardian) at all in those 44 hours of grueling negotiations
So, experts are divided. Nothing unusual there, especially when the dust has yet to settle and the ink is barely dry. Indeed, military moves continue. Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), the big regular annual U.S.-ROK war games that began on August 17 (they were briefly suspended when real life threatened to get hot), still have some days to run. Pyongyang always blasts this as a dress rehearsal for invasion. But one incidental puzzle of the recent crisis is that the North reportedly hardly raised the issue of UFG at all in those 44 hours of grueling negotiations.
Experts being divided is one thing. Pyongyang divided: that’s something else. North Korea’s two chief negotiators swiftly commented – but with totally different interpretations, handily posted together on Xinhua. Chinese readers, and the rest of us, may well scratch our heads.
SWEET AND SOUR
Hwang Pyong So, widely seen as second only to Kim Jong Un, sounded a sour note in a TV broadcast. Seoul had been taught a “harsh lesson … it will only entail military conflicts that escalate tensions if South Korea fabricates a groundless case, makes unilateral judgment and moves to provoke the other side.” That caused dismay in Seoul, leavened by recognition that the North for domestic reasons always has to spin everything as a victory for its totally correct political line, matchless armed forces and peerless leadership. Still, it wasn’t making nice.
But contrast Kim Yang Gon, North Korea’s longtime point man on the South and the North’s number two at the recent talks. Kim was all smiles. No talk from him of harsh lessons or groundless provocations. As quoted by Xinhua, Kim told the North’s KCNA news agency:
“It was very fortunate that the recent contact helped to defuse the danger of the touch-and-go situation … and offered an opportunity of a dramatic change in achieving peace, stability, reconciliation and cooperation … We are pleased … that the North and the South sat face to face (and) had an exhaustive discussion to reach an agreement on issues of common concern, thus opening up an epochal phase for turning misfortune into blessings in the North-South relations.”
That’s more like it. I did wonder if this sweetness and light was for outside consumption only, but no. KCNA’s own full account is all in similar vein, positive and forward-looking.
So whom do we believe: Sour Hwang, or sweet Kim? Maybe the boss can shed some light. Kim Jong Un has now weighed in personally. On August 28, exactly a week after the party Central Military Commission (CMC) last met in emergency session, Kim convened it again.
I say “it,” but in both cases this was a much enlarged meeting; including the full Cabinet, the party Central Committee, provincial party bosses as well as shedloads of military personnel. As KCNA’s photos show, there were hundreds of people in the room – uniforms to the front, suits firmly in the rear – all being lectured by the Young Marshal. A round-table this was not.
An enlarged meeting, but also somewhat reduced. Some CMC members were sacked, but we don’t yet know who or why. Kim’s comments were interesting, if not exactly encouraging. The main lesson to be drawn from the recent crisis, in his view, is the need “to bolster up the national defense capability as firm as iron wall.” That’s because “peace restored under the situation that reached the brink of a war was by no means something achieved on the negotiating table but thanks to the tremendous military muscle with the nuclear deterrent for self-defense built by the great party.” So all those 43 hours of talks didn’t count for anything?
Or again: “the DPRK proposed the north-south high-level urgent contact on its own initiative and put under control the situation which inched close to an armed conflict, thereby clearing the dark clouds of war that hung over the Korean nation and defended peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another way, if one accepts the South’s version of events regarding the mines, is that the North merely dug itself out of a big hole of its own making.
Kim also struck a rare note of self-pity: “We protected the dignity and sovereignty of the country, the gains of the revolution and the happiness of the people by our own efforts amid the tempest of the history without anybody’s support and sympathy.” (Did anyone, perish the thought, say ronery?)
All this will doubtless be pored over and parsed endlessly. Sniffing for subtexts, it’s highly plausible that Kim’s advisers were divided over the wisdom of the mine provocation. So you can just imagine the postmortems raging now in Pyongyang – where, crucially, mortem (it’s Latin for death, remember) is not a metaphor if you end up on the wrong side of the argument.
We can parse away, but actually for once this will be decided empirically. The inter-Korean talks produced a brief but quite concrete agreement, committing to do specific things fairly soon. Family reunions, further high-level talks, and NGO contacts are all envisaged.
Encouragingly, Kim Jong Un directly endorsed this accord: “The joint press release published at the contact provided a crucial landmark occasion of defusing the acute military tension and putting the catastrophic inter-Korean relations on the track of reconciliation and trust.”
The same day the CMC met, South Korea’s Red Cross started the ball rolling by proposing an initial contact on September 7 to discuss family reunions. So let’s see. Will all go smoothly? Or will it be like after last year’s dramatic but short-lived troika visit to the Incheon Asiad, when the promised follow-up talks never happened and the Koreas reverted to bickering?
Only time will tell. So it’s back to Gransci. I’m cautiously hopeful, yet also depressed. Even if we get family reunions and the rest, it only takes us a small step back towards the much better ties the two Koreas had achieved in the sunshine decade before 2007. It’s snakes and ladders.
And why on earth does the North feel it has to arrange a crisis and go to the brink of war, in order to get a dialogue which could have been its for the asking anyway? Seoul had long been offering unconditional talks. There was no need to mobilize troops, launch submarines and declare a state of semi-war. Kim Jong Un could have just picked up the goddam phone.