South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) underscored the importance of resuming inter-Korean cooperation on Tuesday, despite repeatedly insisting during the last year of the Park administration that Pyongyang’s “provocative acts” meant it was inappropriate for the two Koreas to talk.
The unification ministry said Pyongyang had failed to respond to recent inter-Korean Red Cross talk proposals on resuming family reunions and inter-Korean military talks to prevent “hostile acts” along the two Koreas’ maritime border.
“We believe it is necessary to resume inter-Korean cooperation to solve humanitarian issues and ease military tensions…” the statement said. “The R.O.K. Government urges the North to respond to our proposal.”
The statement is the latest in a string of MOU remarks that, since the election of President Moon Jae-in on May 7, underscored the value and importance of inter-Korean civic, humanitarian sporting and government exchanges.
But Seoul’s inter-Korean proposals have – since Moon was elected – come despite North Korea conducting two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, one intermediate-range ballistic missile test, one medium-range ballistic missile test and one short-range ballistic missile test.
And it was missile tests like these – and fear of a looming nuclear test – that led to the MOU dismissing the idea of any form of interaction with the North outside the realm of sports, as recently as April 4.
“I don’t think meaningful dialogue is possible other than sports exchanges, given inter-Korean (tensions),” the ministry told Yonhap news at the time.
Given the “grave situation” in February 2017, spokesperson Jeong Joon-hee said the MOU couldn’t approve a civic exchange request with the North because “the government does not see such inter-Korean civilian exchanges as proper against this backdrop.”
And when Pyongyang itself proposed a national conference on reunification in June 2016, the MOU dismissed it as “a typical propaganda offensive that has been repeated over the years.”
“There is zero bipartisanship in the ROK on how to handle the DPRK”
“The North’s proposal to discuss “peace and unification,” while officially declaring its continued pursuit of nuclear and missile programs upon conducting its fourth nuclear test and carrying out one long-range and six mid-range ballistic missile launches, clearly shows how this offer is false and insincere,” the MOU said at the time.
BETWEEN A ROK AND A HARD PLACE
Following two consecutive conservative administrations, the election of President Moon was always going to mean an abrupt U-turn when it came to inter-Korean policy, observers speculated prior to the election.
“The consistency of South Korean policy on North Korea is very important, meaning a sudden 180-degree change of North Korean policy following elections is not a good idea,” said Dr. Wang Son-taek in a March interview with NK News.
Yet that’s exactly what appears to be happening, despite missile tests of far greater range than those the MOU said made inter-Korean contact inappropriate just a few months ago.
While a new President can be expected to push for a change in direction on inter-Korean policy, what does it say about the policy-making process when a ministry follows suit as rapidly as seems to be currently taking place?
“Like everywhere, only more so, ministries in South Korea serve the incumbent government,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a long-time North Korea watcher based in the UK.
“Given that there is zero bipartisanship in the ROK on how to handle the DPRK, it’s only to be expected that changes of President will lead to consequences like this,” he said. “Big shifts, U-turns even: that’s normal.”
A South Korean policy expert, speaking on condition of anonymity due to ongoing relations with the ministry, had a similar understanding.
“Korean bureaucrats see themselves as “Executors” of policy guidelines set forth by the executive branch, rather than independent guardians of policy positions,” the expert said.
But that “does not mean that agencies have their own interests or policy positions,” the source continued, with the MOU being a case in point.
“By design it favors exchange with North Korea and for this reason it was sidelined from North Korea policy during the (previous) conservative administrations.”
As a result, the ministry “couldn’t contradict the Presidents of the moment,” the expert said of the Park Geun-hye era, explaining the recently held position of not supporting talks.
What, then, of the MOU’s own explanation of its rapid change in position?
“I am sure you are well aware, but the incumbent gov’t clearly has (a) different approach towards the North wanting to have a dialogue to better the inter-Korean relations,” an MOU spokesperson told NK News.
“When we make a decision to make a stance and issue a statement, we go through various consultations with relevant authorities,” the spokesperson said. “We discuss and share opinions and come up with final decision.”
Whether or not talks are what the MOU really wants deep down, for some, the changes are perfectly understandable.
“ROK administrations change, and thus MoU official statements may reflect different approaches to inter-Korean issues,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
“It is … not surprising that the Ministry of Unification has not demonstrated a unified policy position,” said Christopher Green, a researcher at the University of Leiden.
“It is willfully capricious, reflecting the capriciousness of views on how to deal with North Korea,” he said. “Whether that makes it effective or not is another matter.”
And indeed for others, this partisanship in inter-Korean position-forming remains problematic.
“A sudden change in the opposite direction never works, it’s proven,” Wang said in his March interview. “Just because you become the President, just because you have the power, then you shouldn’t immediately pursue policies on the other side of the track; that approach doesn’t work.”
“Partisan debate is never productive and nobody likes it, except maybe the North Koreans because they get a little bit more time to survive, manage their country, and actually they are successful about it,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA, edited by NK News
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Featured Image: Inter-Korean by Pekka Tamminen on 2012-12-26 14:58:11