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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
One year after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in crossed the military demarcation line to sign the Panmunjom Declaration, where do the two Koreas now stand? If one thing is clear a year later, it’s that inter-Korean dialogue is now effectively suspended.
High-level talks have not taken place since October 15, director-level meetings have not been held for nine weeks, and Pyongyang remains silent on Seoul’s March 18 proposal to hold general-level military talks to discuss the Pyongyang Declaration military agreement.
So, how did stalemate emerge in less than a single year? What is the fundamental cause of the current deadlock? Are there any ways Seoul can now unravel the situation?
To better understand how things look from South Korea’s point of view, NK News spoke to nine Seoul-based experts about all these and other related issues:
Inter-Korean impasse: What led to this?
The fundamental cause of the ongoing impasse is that inter-Korean relations are subordinate to the U.S.-DPRK relationship and are not an independent variable from nuclear negotiations, multiple experts pointed out in discussions with NK News.
That’s because the breakdown of the Hanoi summit decreased South Korea’s negotiating leverage with the North, with the DPRK subsequently frustrated over its counterpart’s absence of power in persuading the U.S. to ease international sanctions.
“Inter-Korean relations are strained as there is nothing Seoul can give in response to Pyongyang’s wish to ease sanctions,” Lee Geun said.
“Inter-Korean relations are strained as there is nothing Seoul can give in response to Pyongyang’s wish to ease sanctions”
In that vein, Cha Du-hyeogn pointed to a “difference of viewpoint” in evaluating the value of the inter-Korean relationship – between Seoul and Pyongyang – as contributing to the current impasse.
For the South Korean government, the development of North-South ties has theoretical value beyond inter-Korean ties alone. The Ministry of Unification, for example, said in its Work Plan that Seoul could “facilitate North Korea-U.S. dialogue through inter-Korean dialogue” and that this, in turn, can lead to progress in denuclearization.
In contrast, Cha said, the DPRK government emphasizes “national cooperation,” effectively an indicator that Pyongyang wants Seoul to raise its voice to lift sanctions.
“In a nutshell, South Korea sees the development of inter-Korean relations as the main pillar of the relationship, whereas North Korea considers it as a stepping-stone to break the deadlock of its relations with the U.S.,” Cha said.
“In this context, there is no incentive for North Korea to develop inter-Korean relations when it believes that the U.S. does not accept the South Korean government’s right to speak.”
For Pyongyang, then, South Korea can only have strategic value when it’s capable of persuading the U.S. to ease sanctions to create the right conditions to implement inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Kim Dong-yub, meanwhile, suggested that Pyongyang may have become disappointed with how Seoul followed-up to sending a special delegation led by a director of the Presidential National Security Office (NSO), Chung Eui-yong, to North Korea in March 2018.
“There is no incentive for North Korea to develop inter-Korean relations when it believes that the U.S. does not accept the South Korean government’s right to speak”
With that delegation visit fundamental in bringing the U.S. and DPRK to the negotiation table, Pyongyang may now consider that Seoul is somehow “responsible” for the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, Kim said.
“Inter-Korean relations could have been the bridge to settle North Korea-U.S. relations and resolve essential issues,” he explained. “As the expectation … turns into huge disappointment, it becomes a fundamental cause of straining inter-Korean relations.”
Furthermore, Kim said that North Korea had also made a “strategic failure” in the sense that it tried to leverage inter-Korean relations to resolve issues relating to sanctions and U.S. diplomacy, instead of aiming to purely improve ties between Seoul and Pyongyang.
The South Korean government also made the mistake of being bent on promoting inter-Korean summits and achievements, he said.
“North Korea should have considered the strategic value of inter-Korea relations in a more valuable manner and recognized the preciousness of the connection”.
Consequently, Kim said it was regrettable that Pyongyang was not honest about seeking to improve bilateral ties with Seoul.
“South Korea also should have handled its relations with the U.S. more confidently … to develop a positive momentum between inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK relations and denuclearization in a virtuous circle.”
But Seoul failed to sever the negative connection which emerged between the three factors and created an atmosphere where inter-Korean and DPRK-U.S. relations developed separately, causing the current impasse on the peninsula to emerge, Kim continued.
For his part, however, Park Hwee-rhak said that Seoul’s effort to mediate and facilitate nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington was inappropriate. Instead, South Korea should have positioned itself as the “party directly concerned” with denuclearization, he said.
The Moon Jae-in government’s “appeasement policy” was also cited by Park as decreasing South Korean leverage on Pyongyang, which does not often see the necessity of considering Seoul’s point of view.
And that can consequently decrease Seoul’s bargaining power in inter-Korean relations, he continued.
“North Korea should have considered the strategic value of inter-Korea relations in a more valuable manner and recognized the preciousness of the connection”
Creative ways to break the deadlock?
In order to overcome the current impasse, Seoul should extend its role by mediating and further facilitating U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiations, some of the experts said, even though it may currently have little room to maneuver.
“The easing of sanctions is impossible, and therefore there is no other option than receiving a complete (denuclearization) roadmap from North Korea,” Lee Geun said. “To this end, there is no alternative but for Seoul to creatively come up with an offer that North Korea would be unable to refuse.”
South Korean Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul in March emphasized the importance of seeking “creative solutions” that could be beneficial to both Pyongyang and Washington.
“Inter-Korean relations (can be) normalized only when Seoul devises creative measures particularly pertinent to front-loading”
Speaking at a parliamentary hearing, Kim provided a plan for the two countries to jointly develop a cooperative threat reduction (CTR) program that would see them dismantle, among other things, the DPRK’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon as one of the options.
But Cho Sung-ryul said it would be difficult for South Korea to persuade the two countries by simply trying to compromise.
“Inter-Korean relations (can be) normalized only when Seoul devises creative measures particularly pertinent to front-loading, which can lead Washington and Pyongyang into nuclear negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Cheong Seong-chang said Seoul could help narrow differences by proposing a firm timeline.
This would be important given the U.S. side did not in recent months provide a “detailed plan” on what corresponding measures North Korea could receive if it abandoned its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs.
“The U.S. will never be able to satisfy North Korea (merely) with the abstract idea of guaranteeing a bright future,” Cheong said.
Consequently, he said, “it is necessary for the South Korean government to devise a comprehensive schedule on denuclearization measures to be taken by Pyongyang and corresponding measures, especially as they relate to sanctions relaxation.”
But it appears the Moon administration failed to get U.S. buy-in even on securing any accelerated timelines.
Before the U.S.-ROK summit held on April 11, for example, Seoul proposed the concept of an “early harvest.”
Though this indicated that Seoul was interested in securing a framework where North Korea might be provided with incentives once or twice in the earlier stages of the denuclearization process, that summit ended without a joint statement and it is not clear if Moon even raised the issue during his visit.
Hastening North Korea’s own approach
Cha Du-hyeogn and Park Hwee-rhak both suggested that Seoul could try and stimulate a sense of North Korean urgency to engage in inter-Korean dialogue as a means to break the impasse.
With North Korea externally showing no hurry in pursuing inter-Korean relations, Seoul should “make it hasten,” Cha said.
“South Korea should not risk its neck for dialogue, including a summit and dispatch of special envoy at this current stage,” he said.
“If the South Korean government gives the impression that it is very anxious and begs, it will simply strengthen North Korea’s (current) inclination.”
Following the U.S.-ROK summit, President Moon publicly said he hoped to hold a sixth inter-Korean summit “regardless of venue and format,” though Seoul has not yet announced a plan to send a special delegation North.
In light of this, Park said that Seoul’s effort to accelerate DPRK denuclearization should square directly with Washington’s, in fuller support of the U.S. pressure campaign.
“No one would yield a valuable thing on the condition that a counterpart (always) treats it well,” he said.
“(Pyongyang) will surrender its assets only when believing that their possession of them will be of no good,” he said. “When South Korea imposes strong pressure with the U.S., North Korea will not be able to help but make an appeal to the South.”
For the North, Seoul’s strategic value is therefore only comparative to the strength of the ROK-U.S. alliance, said Bong Young-shik.
“South Korea needs to clearly deliver the message, in coordination with the U.S., that the only way to exit from economic sanctions is to take certain measures to achieve denuclearization,” he said.
“South Korea needs to clearly deliver the message, in coordination with the U.S., that the only way to exit from economic sanctions is to take certain measures to achieve denuclearization,”
Striving for inter-Korean cooperation
Faced with the impasse, Kim Dong-yub said Seoul should aim to persuade Pyongyang to improve its bilateral ties separate from the denuclearization process and emerging state of DPRK-U.S. relations. In this regard, he said South Korea ought to seek projects that the pair can independently implement, labeling it as a “two-track approach.”
“Under these circumstances, South Korea should not cling to attainment,” Kim said. “What is most significant is that we should evaluate the current situation and seek a solution to a problem in the position of the party directly involved in the issue, not in the capacity of facilitator or mediator.”
To take a two-track approach, Kim said, the two Koreas should build military confidence and more fully implement the inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement — which is mostly unconnected to the international sanctions framework — as the initial point.
With enough military confidence-building efforts, the improvement of inter-Korean relations can become “irreversible.”
To make a breakthrough, South Korea has repeatedly emphasized the significance of a top-down and summit-driven approach in developing sustainable inter-Korean relations and resolving “core pending issues,” including denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, according to the MOU’s Work Plan.
U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon agreed that the “top-down approach will continue to be indispensable in the peace process on the Korean peninsula,” Chung Eui-yong said on April 11, following the U.S.-ROK summit.
Chung also said the two Presidents shared the view that “huge progress should be made in the process of denuclearization negotiations through a top-down approach.”
But South Korean experts have diverse views on the validity of the top-down approach, with some indicating that the Moon Jae-in government has a distorted but entrenched view on the logic of it.
“Although the top-down approach is useful, there is also a limitation,” said Cheong Seong-chang. “Therefore, Chairman Kim Jong Un needs to delegate considerable authority to the working-level team (to get results).
Nam Sung-wook agreed that there are limitations. “Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are not an absolute method,” he said.
“As problems and difficulties arise from the lack of progress in denuclearization, the fundamental cause is actually not the approach, but the will to achieve denuclearization.”
Others, however, said the approach was most logical in the current situation.
“Without the top-down approach, it is impossible to break through the difficulties and pave the way out of the current situation,” said Cho Sung-ryul. “I think the approach is right.”
Lee Geun said the approach made sense because it “aims to make progress expeditiously as negotiations at the working-level (have historically) proceeded slowly.”
But another observer said the main problem related to the intentions of one of the leaders.
“The top-down approach is important, but Kim Jong Un — who is top — does not make any movement,” said Shin Beom-chul.
“The top-down approach is important, but Kim Jong Un — who is top — does not make any movement”
A misleading but entrenched position
In spite of its utility, some experts pointed out that Seoul’s top-down approach to negotiations can also contribute to a lack of public consensus on North Korea policy.
Cha Du-hyeogn said due to Seoul’s possible over-interpretation of the concept, the government may “make a small-group decision and follow group-think if it decides on a policy with a top-down approach.”
As such, while the President can resolutely make a decision on issues, it’s at the risk of overlooking working-level inputs during the negotiation process.
In contrast, he said it was unlikely that President Trump could be able to ignore voices from Washington and the Congress if he takes a top-down approach with foreign policy, pointing to a difference between the ROK and U.S. understanding of the concept.
“The South Korean government misunderstands the top-down approach as it considers (it) as allowing a few congenial people to make policy-decisions, going beyond the (normal) negotiation process.”
“The application of the top-down approach to foreign policy is only (normally) allowed only when the government faces circumstances where there is a genuine possibility of crisis and deals with a very grave matter,” Cha said, adding that it had legitimacy when the Korean peninsula was in a precarious situation.
In that context, Cha said there had been a lack of efforts by the Moon Jae-in government to inform the public and the National Assembly of how the two Koreas had implemented the joint declarations – and on what remains unfulfilled.
“The South Korean government misunderstands the top-down approach as it considers (it) as allowing a few congenial people to make policy-decisions, going beyond the (normal) negotiation process”
Crucially, the government provided little explanation on the lack of progress surrounding both the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations, on why the hotline between the two leaders had not yet been used, and on why the Pyongyang Art Troupe did not stage a scheduled performance in Seoul last October.
Besides the absence of such explanations, Park Hwee-rhak said a top-down approach resulted in a small number of government officials being involved in policy decisions, with bottom-up democratic influences ignored and, as a result, an increased probability of problematic policies emerging.
And that tendency appears to run counter to the Moon Jae-in government’s major policy task — which was announced in July 2017 — to gain public support for its policy on North Korea and unification.
A July 2017 statement, for example, said the emerging ROK government would aim to “build public consensus on unification” and would set the goal of seeking the “signing of a national agreement on public consensus (and laying) of the foundations for stable, sustainable policies on unification and North Korea.”
Such an objective is particularly important for inter-Korean policy, Kim Dong-yub said. “It is crucial to persuade the public in the process of moving forward without being obsessed with outcomes,” he explained, even though “it may take time”.
But key South Korean security aides to President Moon may have a misunderstanding on the top-down approach and a tendency to be overly-dependent on the President, neglecting their duties, he warned.
“A top-down approach does not mean the President handles matters that must be settled by security key aides,” Kim said.
“(But) it appears that key security aides hide behind the President when a problem arises,” he continued. “They need to change their thoughts and perceptions.”
On military issues, some modest success
One area where some modest positive outcomes emerged in the past year, however, related to the military confidence-building measures implemented after a period of almost ten years of inter-Korean acrimony.
In this regard, South Korean experts pointed to several sets of developments which contributed to an easing of military tensions in the past year.
At the Panmunjom Declaration, the South and North agreed to “carry out disarmament in a phased manner, as military tension is alleviated and substantial progress is made in military confidence-building.”
“The greatest achievement is that we secured various safety mechanisms to prevent an accidental clash between the two Koreas”
At last September’s Pyongyang Declaration the pair signed a comprehensive inter-Korean military agreement, which was labeled as a “de facto non-aggression pact” by the South Korean presidential office and later by Kim Jong Un during his New Year speech.
Then, in the Moon Jae-in government’s National Security Strategy issued in December, Seoul proposed a blueprint towards disarmament in three steps. South Korea planned to proceed with operational arms control after improving military-military confidence, then to push forward structural arms control through the Inter-Korean Joint Military Committee.
To this end, Seoul said in its security paper that the two Koreas would transform the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into a peace zone in a genuine sense by pursuing various goals:
While progress towards over-arching goals was limited, most experts welcomed the developments.
“The greatest achievement is that we secured various safety mechanisms to prevent an accidental clash between the two Koreas,” Cheong Seong-chang said.
“By creating buffer zones in land, air, and sea, it reduced the possibility that an accidental clash can lead to a severe deterioration of inter-Korean relations.”
In this regard, the two Koreas agreed to suspend land, air, and sea military exercises and begin the operation of a designated no-fly zone along the military demarcation line (MDL) from November 1 last year, for instance.
Meanwhile, Kim Dong-yub said the signing of an inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement was alone the greatest achievement, since a prerequisite to establishing peace on the peninsula is implementation of the military agreement.
“The two Koreas can walk along the path of denuclearization and co-prosperity only when peace exists,” he said.
Kim said Seoul and Pyongyang could make a breakthrough by building military confidence – which is rarely impacted by economic sanctions – although conceded that both sides had tended to put inter-Korean military issues on the back burner.
Through the implementation of the military agreement, the two Koreas could eventually make inter-Korean relations “irreversible,” he said, while military confidence-building efforts could act as a safety pin if and when a problem comes up.
Denuclearization: Achievement or Disaster?
Most of the experts NK News spoke to pointed to a lack of progress on denuclearization as being the most unsatisfactory aspect of the past year, even if the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula” in the Panmunjom Declaration.
“In addition, there is also a possibility that the situation can end with the possibility of aggravating peace on the peninsula in the longer-term, as North Korea and the U.S. exchange an imperfect commitment to denuclearization,” Bong Young-shik said.
“There is also a possibility that the situation can end with the possibility of aggravating peace on the peninsula in the longer-term”
Cho Sung-ryul said Seoul made an achievement in the sense that it has been engaged in nuclear negotiations as the “party directly concerned,” however.
Before the fifth inter-Korean summit, then-South Korea presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok explained that denuclearization would be included on the agenda of talks with the North and South Korean leaders for the first time.
Im said that the denuclearization issue had prior only been dealt with by North Korea and the U.S., who were not pleased with South Korea raising the issue.
But the Pyongyang Declaration included the clause that the “Korean peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, and that substantial progress toward this end (is necessary),” implying that inter-Korean cooperation would be necessary in that regard.
Cha Du-hyeogn said it also had significance because it meant Seoul and Pyongyang could break away from the style of previous South Korea governments, which often approached the issue from polar opposites.
The conservative governments adhered to a stance that nothing pertinent to the development of inter-Koreans relations could be done without progress in denuclearization, whereas liberal-leaning governments tended to focus more on other inter-Korean matters, putting aside the North Korean nuclear issue.
“It is clearly meaningful that the two Koreas agreed to stipulate that the two issues can be simultaneously pursued,” Cha said. “The fact that Seoul received consent from Pyongyang has meaningful implications beyond symbolism”.
One year after the Panmunjom Declaration was signed, the North Korean leader said on April 12 that the “grave situation” was forcing Seoul and Pyongyang to decide between a continuation of the atmosphere of inter-Korean rapprochement or a return to the past.
As Kim said, the two Koreas now appear to be at a critical juncture especially in the wake of the Hanoi Summit.
How the Moon government addresses the issues and concerns raised by the South Korean experts who spoke to NK News will, therefore, have an impact on the long-term results of any further inter-Korean cooperation.
Edited by Chad O’Carroll
Featured Image: Joint Press Corps