Start-again, stop-again. That seems to be the repeating mantra of inter-Korean affairs.
Despite being unabashedly in favor of inter-Korean engagement, it took over six months following Moon Jae-in becoming President of South Korea in May 2017 for North Korea to become interested in considering engagement with his government.
But once that engagement started – precipitated by the Winter Olympics in early 2018 – inter-Korean talks quickly gained momentum, resulting in three summits between Moon and Kim Jong Un that year.
Yet although the last of those resulted in the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration – and subsequent inter-Korean military confidence-building measures – by spring 2019 the blossoming détente had begun to seriously decay.
And now, it seems, inter-Korean relations are almost back where they started, with Pyongyang on Friday stating it had “no intention” to hold further talks with South Korea.
“We have nothing to talk any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again,” remarks issued via North Korean state media said.
What, then, to make of the volte-face? Why is it that Kim Jong Un is treating one of his biggest international backers with such disdain? And what are going to be the consequences for the future of inter-Korean relations?
To find out, NK News spoke to five specialists with deep understanding of inter-Korean relations:
- Christopher Green – Senior Adviser, Korean Peninsula, International Crisis Group
- Go Myong-hyun – Research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
- Han Dong-ho – USC Korean Studies Institute
- Minyoung Lee – Senior Analyst, NK Pro
- Wang Son-taek – Veteran Journalist, YTN / Regular Contributor, NK News
What do you think is motivating North Korea to reject South Korean President Moon Jae In’s outreach through such increasingly antagonistic and frequent public statements?
Go Myong-hyun: These statements seem to show the North Korean regime’s growing frustration with the Moon administration, especially because Moon has allowed joint ROK-U.S. exercises to proceed in spite of having reached a groundbreaking military deescalation agreement with the North last year.
But that’s not the real reason why North Korea is acting petulant.
The real reason is that engaging South Korea at the moment is not useful to its strategy of gradually pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink, thereby forcing the U.S.’s hands.
“North Korea is essentially saying that its good behavior is not free, and it expects to be compensated either politically or financially”
Dialogue with South Korea would send the wrong signal to Washington that the situation is all quiet on DMZ front. Pyongyang wants to keep Trump and his team anxious and on their toes, and come up with “creative” solutions to North Korea’s missile challenges.
At the same time, the growing antagonism in the statements is meant to warn the Moon administration against wantonly taking credit for peace and stability for domestic purposes.
North Korea is essentially saying that its good behavior is not free, and it expects to be compensated either politically or financially.
In 2018, Kim Jong Un appears to have had some level of confidence that President Moon Jae-in would play his part as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington — at a minimum facilitating the resumption of inter-Korean economic projects.
After Hanoi, the North likely decided that South Korea was no longer useful for resuming inter-Korean economic projects or for promoting DPRK-U.S. relations. It knew that the U.S. would not approve of the resumption of inter-Korean economic projects without progress in DPRK-U.S. nuclear talks.
Although the Hanoi summit ended without an agreement, Kim and Trump parted amicably, which meant Pyongyang did not need Seoul to liaise with the U.S. North Korean official pronouncements have repeatedly confirmed that Pyongyang prefers to deal exclusively with the U.S. and that there is no room for South Korea. Note that President Moon also was sidelined during the Kim-Trump meeting in Panmunjom on June 30.
Kim Jong Un’s patience with Washington is clearly running out, and he is escalating tensions to elicit a change in U.S. position on the denuclearization talks before the year-end deadline Kim himself set.
To that end, Pyongyang is using South Korea — a card that it views as no longer useful — as a means of ramping up pressure on Washington without directly targeting it. Pyongyang still wants to pursue diplomacy with the U.S., and directing its criticism and missile launches at the U.S. would send the wrong message to Washington.
Wang Son-taek: There might be three layers of motivation for the North’s rejections. The first layer is to express their anger at the South Korea-centric perspective that President Moon Jae-in showed in his speech.
The South Korea-centric perspective is a collective way of thinking in which South Korea’s approach is viewed as the standard and North Korea’s approach as abnormal, wrong and valueless.
For example, they are displeased by the President’s remark that there could be more dialogue after this wave of antagonism passes. They are angry because the remark presumes that the North would rejoin the dialogue table, even though the North did not yet provide such consent.
The second layer is to separate South Korea from the negotiation process with the United States. It might called a campaign of “Talk to the U.S., excluding the South.” This motivation originated from the result of the Hanoi summit when the North and South Korea had been in communication with each other.
The third layer is to control the South Korean administration so that the South would cooperate with the North Korean policy-line, such as pushing ahead with economic cooperation in disregard of the U.S. sanctions, or cooperation between the two Koreas with no intervention from the U.S., etc.
Han Dong-ho: North Korea recently rejects any proposal from the South. Instead, North Korea shows a very aggressive posture toward it. I believe this is because of the recently changing North Korean strategy toward the Korean peninsula.
The North expected a lot more from U.S.-DPRK summits this year but unlike its expectations, the position of the U.S. is still firm in terms of continued sanctions and a push for complete denuclearization. This trend is unchanging despite President Trump’s sudden proposal to meet with Chairman Kim at the DMZ.
Thus, after the recent meeting with Trump, Kim and his aides seem to decide to pursue a more harsh strategy in order to change the status quo in the North’s favor.
In the history of inter-Korean relations, Seoul has been repeatedly instrumentalized by Pyongyang to bring about the latter’s goals both regionally and vis-à-vis the U.S.
At the moment – in light of the reasonably successful efforts of Seoul and Washington to maintain close coordination despite significant differences over North Korea policy – it serves North Korea’s purposes to ostracize the South.
How could the Moon administration have better accommodated North Korea this year and avoided this situation?
In light of the outcome of the Hanoi summit, only two things could have significantly altered the dynamic: first, a substantive agreement between North Korea and the U.S., over which the Moon administration would in any case not have much influence; or second, a decision from Seoul to openly defy the U.S. by reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tours, a move for which, wisely in my view, Moon has shown that he has no appetite.
Thus, because the North Korean leadership cannot further any of its political or economic goals by engaging South Korea at this time, it does not engage.
In this sense, I believe, the role of the Moon administration has its own limit. However, in order to improve the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, the Moon administration needs to show some firm stance on issues such as U.S.-ROK military exercises and to clarify what the Korean government can and cannot do in terms of security posture on the Korean Peninsula.
The two track approach – pursuing dialogue and cooperation between the two Koreas and standing firm on security issues – would make it possible for the two Koreas to make a peace settlement in the future.
Minyoung Lee: I think there was very little room for South Korea to stay in the game after Kim and Trump established a personal relationship through the two summits last year and earlier this year. The only way South Korea would have been useful to North Korea is if the inter-Korean economic projects had resumed. However, that realistically cannot happen without a green light from the U.S., and North Korea knows it all too well.
Would it have helped if South Korea had canceled its imports of the U.S. F-35A fighter jets and called off its military exercises with the U.S.? I am skeptical. North Korea needs to escalate tensions, and the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises are a convenient excuse for the North to do just that.
“I think there was very little room for South Korea to stay in the game after Kim and Trump established a personal relationship through the two summits last year and earlier this year”
North Korea’s reaction to the U.S.-ROK spring joint military exercises in 2018 was very low key, likely due to the scheduled first inter-Korean and DPRK-U.S. summits. This only goes to show that North Korea’s response to U.S.-ROK joint military exercises can be weak if it wants it to be.
Wang Son-taek: As there is a fundamental contradiction between the South and the North, it is natural to see the two sides are at odds in many areas. The two Koreas can’t avoid conflict like this, so that they have to learn how to overcome this kind of dead-end.
When the time of conflict comes, it would be better for both sides to try to learn something like the communication codes of the other side.
One very sensitive point is that the South Korean side should not be regarded as an underdog beneath the North because South Korean people could think the administration has been humiliated too much.
Go Myong-hyun: The Moon administration is caught in a bind. It knows that in order to improve relations with Pyongyang it would have to distance itself from the alliance with the U.S. and ignore the international sanctions regime.
It is also aware that acknowledging that the relationship with Pyongyang is breaking down would completely undermine Moon’s domestic standing, with negative political consequences for next year’s general election.
So it has no choice but to keep up the appearance that the dialogue with Pyongyang continues apace and dismiss these sort of messages from Pyongyang as mere euphemisms by the North.
With the bulk of the Korean public wanting to believe this approach has worked well, this will be Moon’s default response going forward.
What will be the key short and long-term implications of the North’s repeated rejection of the South?
Minyoung Lee: From North Korea’s point of view, it has its own communication channels with the Trump administration, and South Korea has done its part — unless it can find a way to revive the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tours. That said, it is highly unlikely that North Korea will have a motivation to mend ties with South Korea anytime soon.
Today’s CPRC spokesperson’s press statement issued the unconditional warning that it does not “have any intention of sitting face-to-face” with South Korea, although it left some wriggle room for flexibility by withholding the press statement from the domestic audience.
Though improved ties seem unlikely for the foreseeable future, Pyongyang will be keen on inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation again, if it needs Seoul. For example, in late 2017, how many people could have predicted that Kim and Moon would be having their first summit the following April?
Wang Son-taek: The short-term implications are deeply related to their goals, such as stopping the sort of orientalist perspective of President Moon Jae-in and contraction of military drills, and putting pressure on the U.S. for possible negotiations. So, the South Korean side are better to be cautious on their language and expressions. South Korea and the United States should think about how to explain the drills and how to handle the North when the negotiation begin.
Long-term implications are related with splitting South Korea and the United States and taming President Moon Jae-in under their policy line. So, the South and the United States should think about the North Korean calculation. President Moon would be better to make a list of give-and-take by understanding what the North wants after they think they tamed him.
Therefore, it does not make sense to talk about North Korea’s rejection of the South at this specific moment in time as having long-term implications.
Short-term, North Korea can look forward to exacerbating political tensions in South Korea over Seoul’s engagement policy in light of recent North Korean missile tests. That will keep South Korean society disunited, which is precisely how Pyongyang wants it.
Han Dong-ho: Actually, the North’s behavior like the recent provocations are nothing new in the history of inter-Korean relations. It does not necessarily mean, however, that the North’s threat can be regarded just as a negotiating strategy.
Various talks and meetings among concerned players in the region – South Korea, North Korea, the U.S. – already progressed since the Moon government took office. It is in this context that the North repeated its past-oriented strategy in order to pursue its own interests. Thus, if this situation continues, there could be more rationale for strengthening security cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the U.S. in the region.
The long term implication only exists if the North completely rejects the South – and it has not reached that level yet. One should note that Pyongyang has not mentioned Moon by his name in these statements. This is typically done in order to leave room for fast reconciliation down the road.
South Korea is still a useful pawn for Pyongyang, and the Moon administration is hoping that Pyongyang will continue to see it that way.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Press Corps, edited by NK News. All other photos credit to NK News.
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