The August 25 agreement has raised some hopes about inter-Korean ties; at the very least, it appears members of divided families may have a chance to meet in October.
But what do South Korean specialists focusing on North Korea think of the agreement, and prospects for improving inter-Korean relations in the coming weeks and months?
In part four of a major new NK News expert interview series, established and rising Pyongyang watchers from the Republic of Korea see regular meetings, at least of separated families, as the natural next step following the August 25 agreement.
Regular contact and discussions between officials of the two Koreas would be a positive step, and making the reunions a regular occurrence would be beneficial, the experts agree. However, more than one expert surveyed suggested that South Korean officials should avoid inflammatory comments in the meantime, citing an official’s mention of the contingency plan to “decapitate” the North Korean leadership if it appeared close to using its nuclear weapons.
NK watchers from the South Korean panel of respondents include:
- Hwang Ji-hwan – Professor of University of Seoul, Department of International Relations
- Chung Young-cheol – Professor of the Graduate School of Public Policy, Department of North Korea and Unification Policy Studies, Sogang University
- Lim Eul-chul – Professor & Research Director of Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University
- Go Myong-hyun – Research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
- Julia Oh – Fellow, The National Bureau of Asian Research, Washington DC
- Jung Eun-lee – Professor of the Institute for Social Sciences, Kyungsang University
Responses translated by JH Ahn, Hyunbi Park, and Ina Yoon
Q4) How can the two Koreas constructively advance relations after the recent talks? And what should they do to avoid the agreement falling apart?
The August 25 agreement between the two Koreas was possible due to the fact that both parties could share certain benefits from the agreement. So, in order to further enhance the inter-Korean relationship, there has to be some form of benefit that both parties can share from future conversations.
To prevent the halting of the inter-Korean conversation, both parties should do their best to participate in future attempts at inter-Korean dialogues. But as continuing dialogue between the two may not proceed as one imagines, it is crucial to build a political “framework” in which both parties can benefit from dialogue.
It is crucial to build a political ‘framework’ in which both parties can benefit from dialogue
Throughout the steps of building this framework, South Korea may be able to suggest further meetings of separated families, the prevention of North Korea’s future provocations, and provision of humanitarian aid. North Korea may in turn suggest the resumption of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and the abolition of the May 24 Measures.
The current agreement was signed under dramatic circumstances during a volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula. In some respects, this agreement showed that both South and North Korea don’t intend to break the status quo. It means that both South and North Korea cannot easily decide on disintegration, resulting in war, and neither of them have inner and surrounding capacity and conditions prepared for such an event.
The recent agreement is very basic in its contents. The real meaning of the agreement, however, is that South and North Korea can embark on governmental-level talks and advance dialogue, being able to raise controversial points such as the May 24 Measures. Therefore, in order to improve inter-Korean relationship and develop current agreement, priority should be put on sincerely implementing the agreements. The first step is reunion of the divided families. At the government-level talks the May 24 Measures should be discussed, as North Korea has demanded.
What’s important is that the media should avoid reports that could drive North Korea into a corner
Another important variable is South Korean media reports. The media are already reporting by separating the North and South into winners and losers in their evaluations of the recent agreement. However, in the inter-Korean relationship, “winner” and “loser” can be reversed at any time. What’s important is that the media should avoid reports that could drive North Korea into a corner. North Korea is already responding to South Korean media reports and remarks by both President Park Geun-hye and the military in a very sensitive manner. Unveiling its “decapitation strategy,” which is a military secret, or a “possible provocation in October” is not helpful at all for implementing the agreement.
The most important thing is achieving governmental level talks as promised. This is required for conducting talks that work toward the reunions, and is necessary to maintain the dialogue channel between two parties. Keeping the channel prepares a mechanism making continuous dialogue possible, even when dialogue is not fruitful. Therefore, we should keep open the opportunity to discuss the different topics between the two countries.
After the 43-hour marathon negotiations between South and North Korean officials, North and South Korea came to an agreement on the six points of the joint agreement and created a new framework for reconciliation and working together. I believe that this will be the start of peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
The core issue of the negotiations between the two Koreas was for North Korea to apologize for the mines that were buried and the landmine incident that followed, and the promise to prevent any such further incidents. These agreements would not have been able to take place without Kim Jong Un’s willingness to concede and negotiate. North Korea’s reputation was severely affected, since they changed their position on a matter that they had been denying (Editor’s note: Despite a statement of “regret,” North Korea still denies responsibility for the mine incident that injured two South Korean soldiers). For the Supreme Leader of North Korea to make such a decision, allowing both North and South Korea to save face resulted in a negotiated treaty. I think that it was possible for the two Koreas to reach an agreement because they were both willing to concede and negotiate.
I believe that this will be the start of peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
For future talks to be successful would require the two countries to demonstrate their respect for each other and carry out their promises. The strained relations between North and South Korea have taken place for a long time and due to this, they need to start building up trust from the little things. Once the smaller agreements are kept, then the problems that have kept the relationship between the two Koreas sour may be resolved. The joint business ventures between South and North Korea need to go in a direction that benefits both countries. They need to keep political and military problems separate from the cooperative exchange issues.
There is a clear limit to what the two Koreas can achieve when using the recent agreement as a basis for improvement in the inter-Korean relations. The upper limit to potential progress is denuclearization. North Korea has stated clearly that its nuclear weapons are not negotiable, so that issue is going to be left off the negotiation table. But without a nuclear deal South Korea cannot restart major economic assistance programs to North Korea. If this is what North Korea wants, i.e. keeping its nuclear weapons while resuming trade and investment, then the long-term outcome of the current round of negotiations is quite bleak.
The recent agreement includes an item about restarting the “civilian exchanges,” which actually connote possible lifting of the May 24 Measures (sanctions) and even possibly restarting the Mount Kumgang project. This is very significant, because South Korea had previously set preconditions for having talks with North Korea over these issues, mainly that North Korea apologize over the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island. Denuclearization was not on the list of preconditions, however.
But this time North Korea succeeded in getting South Korea to start these discussions without having satisfied the preconditions. Although South Korea may refuse, for instance, lifting the May 24 measures down the road, North Korea has succeeded in compelling South Korea to scale its “negotiation ladder” by agreeing in principle to hold the reunions of separated families “as soon as possible.”
The major challenge for both sides is to recognize that they should not harbor unrealistic expectations as to what each side can deliver
The major challenge for both sides is to recognize that they should not harbor unrealistic expectations as to what each side can deliver. North Korea should understand that South Korea is not going to deliver the full lifting of the May 24 Measures unless preconditions are met (which is highly unlikely anyway). It should also not even dream that full economic assistance in the face of nuclear development, like what took place during the Roh days, can make a comeback under a different guise.
South Korea seems to have shifted its aims in the inter-Korean dialogue from “peace and stability” by engaging North Korea economically to a smaller set of objectives. South Korea is likely to parcel out assistance packages piecemeal, contingent upon North Korea allowing family reunions and yielding on other humanitarian issues. If that’s the case, the South should be aware that the only reason North Korea is negotiating is because it expects some sort of major economic breakthrough that can be credited to Kim Jong Un. It will be very tricky to manage North Korea’s expectation down the road.
Considering the August 25 agreement was made following injuries to two South Korean soldiers caused by a landmine and extensive negotiations between the South and North, it is now important to avoid what has otherwise become a vicious cycle: A North Korean provocation, a South Korean response, an agreement between the two Koreas, some direct or indirect compensation towards the North and, after months of calm, another provocation that brings the cycle back to the beginning.
Overall, the August 25 agreement is a positive step for inter-Korean relations, which were running at high tension for some time. To ensure the success of the agreement, both parties should now refrain from provoking each other on diplomatically sensitive issues which can disrupt the development of the relationship. It will also help if the South Korean government could take steps not to disturb the good mood created by the agreement, such as preventing leaflet launches conducted by some civil organizations.
But the potential for North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests is now of concern, something which could undo the progress we have seen in recent weeks. Such tests will be criticized not only by South Korea, but also by international society, including Russia and China. Therefore we can expect that such tests – if they go ahead – will likely influence the South Korean government to maintain the 5.24 sanctions, which we know that Pyongyang hopes to see be relaxed.
If steps can be taken by the two Koreas to make reunions much more common, it could help bolster the sustainability of more general inter-Korean relations.
If good faith between the two Koreas can somehow be maintained in the coming months, progress can be built by making family reunions more regular. It has been one year, eight months since the last family reunion event took place and, sadly, there is no sign that the next reunion event will become a regular inter-Korean fixture. And unfortunately it appears few steps are being taken by the North to regularize such reunions. If steps can therefore be taken by the two Koreas to make these events much more common, it could help bolster the sustainability of more general inter-Korean relations.
After the August 25 settlements, the way to continue relations between North and South Korea would be for South Korea to apply Kantian and plus-sum ideas where one acknowledges the other through dialogue. If one recognizes the other side as the enemy, one cannot break away from the absorption theory, where everyone is seen as the enemy. These ideas are the result of the past 70 years of a divided system and the only fruits of the Cold War. To pursue future peace on the Korean Peninsula, they need to pursue and build trust through dialogue. Politics are where one negotiates diplomatically to pursue peace while fighting in a war.
Of course, there are many different problems and tasks that need to be met to continue the August 25 negotiations. Northern and Southern military hardliners will try to benefit through conflict. If both Northern and Southern officials that support negotiations gain power, they might reach a certain amount of domestic containment. North Korean military hardliners can try to induce UN sanctions by testing long-range missiles and heighten tensions by blaming the UN sanctions and performing a fourth nuclear test.
If one recognizes the other side as the enemy, one cannot break away from the absorption theory, where everyone is seen as the enemy
As a reaction to the attitude of the North Korean military hardliners, the South Korean government should try to support the group that is trying to reform and open up the internal North Korean market as well as help the young North Korean elites realize that these reform policies will be of better help to North Korea’s future. As for North-South confrontational strategies, the South Korean government should work closely with its neighboring countries to find a way to maintain the relaxation of tensions and peace in a consistent manner.
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