Last week North Korea refused a visit by a Seoul-based malaria prevention NGO. It was a move that took many by surprise: with Seoul increasingly showing flexibility towards Pyongyang, why would the North say no to humanitarian aid?
Many inter-Korean NGOs in the South are hoping to speed up the improvement of inter-Korean relations and make contact with, and visits to, the North. But Pyongyang knows that by saying no and increasing the level of uncertainty on the peninsula, they will be most likely rewarded with even bigger rewards in later interactions with South Korean NGOs.
Let’s keep in mind that making the South anxious will help the North gain better strategic leverage in future 1.5 Track meetings (government and civilian) between Pyongyang and Seoul.
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
The message hidden in Pyongyang’s decision is this: it is an attempt to take control of the inter-Korean agenda so that they can more comfortably manipulate the new South Korean government.
The move may also be evidence that Seoul is still only considered a stepping-stone to the end goal: holding direct talks with Donald Trump.
North Korea believes that they are in charge of the situation in the Korean Peninsula and has no reason to appease Seoul and allow a visit by an NGO – for now.
The message hidden in Pyongyang’s “no” to Seoul is this: it is an attempt to take control of the inter-Korean agenda
In the ideal scenario for North Korea, in the future, it would be holding direct talks with Washington and make important decisions: such as ensuring its security and undermining the current ROK-U.S. alliance, as well as occasionally negotiating with Seoul when they need to.
It’s also possible that Pyongyang’s “no” was linked to an imminent major weapon test. What if Kim Jong Un and his officials were planning a sixth nuclear test or some major missile launches sometime this month or the next?
In Pyongyang’s mind, if they had said “yes” to help from South Korean NGOs, by the time their aid arrived (which would be sometime between June to July), South Korean public opinion might have turned against engagement.
From North Korea’s point of view, it is more favorable for them to wait until South Koreans are divided between those who favor engagement and those who oppose it. This way, Pyongyang can successfully exploit public division in the South, and also possibly widen the gap between Seoul and Washington.
If Pyongyang is just trying to take the lead in inter-Korean relations, or trying to use Seoul to get to Washington, then we don’t have much reason to be anxious. We just have to respond the right way. But if the North is indeed planning for future tests and intends to use that to manipulate internal South Korean opinion, then we have to be ready to counter that.
It is possible that Pyongyang’s no was linked to an imminent major weapons test
NO ROOM FOR AMBIGUITY
Under the current circumstances, there is no room for “strategic ambiguity” from Seoul: the only situation when a country can benefit from a policy like that is when other parties have transparent agendas. But Seoul is surrounded by nations whose level of ambiguity is much higher than that of Seoul. In this case, such a strategy is sure to backfire.
When the relations worsen between partners who share the same security interests, then the party who offers security to the other party will be “tempted” to make a compromise with the shared enemy.
We shouldn’t condemn the current government for putting self-reliance (Jaju) and better inter-Korean relations on the top of its agenda, but Seoul’s current gray-zone-ambiguity about North Korea might make our partners question our true intentions.
There may be some South Koreans who think that good intentions are enough to resolve the North Korean problem. If that is what they truly believe, then they must be open about it. Discretion is a great virtue but, depending on the context and situation, it may backfire. The era of strategic ambiguity is over.
Translated by JH Ahn
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Presidential Archive, KCNA, edited by NK News
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