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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.
A year ago this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stood in front of 150,000 North Koreans at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium and claimed that a “new era of peace” had arrived on the peninsula.
The leaders of the two Koreas had that week signed the promising Pyongyang Joint Declaration, with top military officials also agreeing to an ambitious military deal — a deal Seoul described at the time as a “de facto” non-aggression pact.
Hopes were high: some even expected North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to soon return the favor and visit Seoul, and speculation was rife that he might even deliver a speech to the National Assembly.
But 12 months on, how much progress have the two Koreas made in implementing these agreements? The generous answer is: not much.
Although South Korea has continued a markedly one-sided courtship, the North has responded by turning a cold shoulder — especially in the aftermath of February’s no-deal DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi.
The gap in what both sides want from inter-Korean relations is also growing. North Korea in mid-August said it had no intention to sit down with South Korea again, slamming a “brazen” Liberation Day speech by the ROK President.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now clear that North Korea over the past year sent multiple signs that it was growing impatient with the South — signals that Seoul appears to have ignored.
So how did it come to this? How did the two Koreas go from summitry to acrimony in just 12 months?
STAGE 1: AFTER THE SUMMIT, THE HONEYMOON
Seoul and Pyongyang were off to a promising start, beginning the process of removing landmines in the Joint Security Area (JSA) and in the wider Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on October 1.
These actions, which both sides claimed were “irreversible,” were taken in accordance with the inter-Korean military agreement of September 19, signed as an annex to the Pyongyang Joint Declaration.
High-level inter-Korean interactions were also taking place, and the two Koreas in early October held a joint commemorative event in Pyongyang marking the 11th anniversary of the 2007 October 4 Declaration, with a 160-member South Korean delegation in attendance.
Speaking at the event, Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), urged the two sides to resume cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Mount Kumgang resort.
Ri also emphasized that the implementation of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration required the “swift operation of the Inter-Korean Joint Military Committee” — a project yet to be implementation as of September 2019.
The following day, the first meeting of a trilateral consultative body composed of North and South Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC) was held to discuss plans for the demilitarization of the JSA.
Despite the good vibes, there were growing hints of an impatience in Pyongyang
The two Koreas’ implementation of the military agreement was also relatively swift, despite the South Korean military’s independent staging of the Taeguk Command Post Exercise (CPX) and Hoguk Field Training Exercise (FTX) in October and November.
The announcement that those drills would go ahead came on the same day as the two Koreas’ third general-level military talks, at which both agreed to demolish 22 guard posts in the DMZ by the end of November.
November 1 then saw the North and South Korean militaries begin a halt to land, air, and sea military exercises targeted at each other and the operation of designated no-fly zones along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
But despite the good vibes, there were growing hints of an impatience in Pyongyang, with a notable uptick in North Korean external-focused media’s criticism of the U.S. in late October.
Outlets denounced Washington for interfering in inter-Korean economic cooperation projects, including rail and road cooperation, as South Korea openly admitted to differences with the U.S. over the issue.
STAGE 2: THE WRITING’S ON THE WALL
The honeymoon did not last long after that.
South Korea and the U.S.’s late October decision to establish a working group on North Korea — seen by many as part of Washington’s efforts to curb a growing rift between itself and Seoul — was an immediate source of tension.
Roughly a week after the news of the working group broke, North Korean state media said the plans revealed the U.S.’s intention to “ruin” inter-Korean cooperation projects, and condemned Seoul’s “shameful response.”
Within the tripartite framework, inter-Korean projects were also put on hold as nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. stalled.
The situation deteriorated further in the aftermath of the surprise cancellation of a visit by senior official Kim Yong Chol to New York and planned DPRK-U.S. talks in early November.
In mid-November, North Korean media hit out against the UNC, describing it as an “obstacle”
Nonetheless, the implementation of the military agreement remained on course: around the same time, the two Koreas and the UNC on November 6 held a third round of trilateral meetings and agreed on new regulations for joint guard post duty in the newly-demilitarized JSA.
The three sides are yet to finalize the new rules.
In mid-November, North Korean media hit out against the UNC, describing it as an “obstacle” to the improvement of inter-Korean relations.
The U.S., the outlet said, had devised a scheme to intervene in the implementation of the inter-Korean military agreement and to stall progress.
North Korea’s criticism of the UNC was also linked to the “differences” between South Korea and the U.S. over a joint on-site survey aimed at planning for inter-Korean rail and road connection and modernization.
But the UNC in August disallowed South Korean trains from crossing the MDL to conduct the joint on-site survey, citing a failure to provide the necessary 48 hour notice.
A largely-ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the rail and road connection and modernization was held on December 26.
But a joint on-site survey of Donghae road on the eastern part of the peninsula has not yet take place: the UN sanctions committee reportedly granted an exemption on January 29 and the two Koreas discussed the issue on January 31, but the political will appears to have gone.
STAGE 3: TAKING A BACKSEAT BEFORE HANOI
North Korea’s ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun kicked off the new year with a complaint, saying in an article on January 3 said that the groundbreaking ceremony had been “meaningful” but “imperfect.”
Noteworthy, however, was the fact that the main target of its criticism remained the U.S.’s meddling in inter-Korean cooperation projects.
“Inter-Korean relations can never be an appendage of the DPRK-U.S. ties,” it argued, while pointing out that the groundbreaking ceremony, held after “vicissitudes,” showed the U.S.’s attitude towards the North-South relationship.
Despite the continued good relations between the two Koreas, the Rodong Sinmun also expressed frustration, saying inter-Korean relations were “at a standstill and in a state of stagnation.”
In that vein, North Korean external-focused Uriminzokkiri outlet in late-January denounced the Moon Jae-in government’s “indecisive attitude” toward the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and Mount Kumgang.
Pyongyang admonished Seoul for “evading responsibility” and “walking on eggshells around the U.S.”
This appears to the beginning of what would become a trend: Pyongyang expressing its discontent and frustration over Seoul’s inability to push forward with inter-Korean cooperation.
And even before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump sat for their second summit, cracks were already beginning to form between the two Koreas.
North Korea’s ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun kicked off the new year with a complaint
The aid — approved by the Trump administration at the second meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group on December 21 — was never delivered.
Although the South Ministry of Unification (MOU) in February cited incomplete discussions with North Korea as one of the reasons for the delay, NK News learned from multiple sources familiar with the issue that DPRK authorities simply did not take any action to receive the aid.
The progress of implementing the inter-Korean military agreement also began to slow.
North Korea is yet to inform the South of the composition of its joint remains recovery team, although the original deadline was the end of February this year.
Faced with silence from Pyongyang, the South Korean military in March independently began a pilot inter-Korean joint recovery project in the DMZ, set to begin between April 1 to October 31.
With still no progress in the demilitarization process at the JSA and trilateral talks over the free movement of visitors and tourists within the area still in stalemate, Seoul on May 1 reopened the southern part of Panmunjom to the public.
A week before the second Kim-Trump summit, CPRC chairman Ri Son Gwon notified the South Korean government that it would not be able to jointly hold a commemorative event marking the March First Independence Movement, previously agreed in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration.
STAGE 4: CRACKS EMERGE
A sharp illustration of the worsening relationship is the state of director-level meetings at the joint liaison office in Kaesong, which the two Koreas have skipped since February 22.
North Korea may have good reason to be frustrated with the South Korean government, given a central part of its calculation at Hanoi was to offer the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for partial sanctions relief.
Of course, this proposal was included in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, in which the North “expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures.”
Inter-Korean relations deteriorated sharply after the surprise no-deal Hanoi summit, but Seoul may not have noticed until it was too late.
One day after the North Korean leader and the U.S. President left Hanoi empty-handed, South Korean President Moon announced a new initiative for a “new Korean peninsula regime” in a speech marking the centenary of Korea’s March 1 independence movement.
The initiative, Moon said, included a plan to establish a “new community of economic cooperation.”
But, he stressed, South Korea would consult with the U.S. over ways to reopen the factories at the KIC and Mount Kumgang tourism.
The fact that Moon Jae-in government stressed its need to adhere to sanctions framework and alliance with the U.S. likely amplified Pyongyang’s frustration with Seoul.
Inter-Korean relations deteriorated sharply after the surprise no-deal Hanoi summit
In that vein, North Korean externally-focused media on March 22 dismissed the unification ministry’s 2019 Work Plan — which pledged to facilitate North Korea-U.S. nuclear negotiations through inter-Korean talks — as “presumptuous.”
North Korea that same day abruptly withdrew its staff from the inter-Korean joint liaison office “in accordance with the direction of the superior authority.”
Ahead of the seventh Moon-Trump summit on April 11, North Korean external outlets ratcheted up the rhetoric against the South Korean government.
Although Moon flew to Washington with a laundry-list of tasks, including hopes to move the U.S. into a more compromising position, his summit with Trump ended without any tangible results.
One day after Moon and Trump sat down for a meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un openly dismissed the South Korea’s attempts to serve as a mediator.
In a policy speech delivered at the First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), Kim called for faithful implementation of inter-Korean agreements, and urged Seoul not to “waver in their attitudes… nor pretend to be a meddlesome ‘mediator’ and ‘facilitator.’”
To improve inter-Korean relations, Kim urged Seoul to drop the “reckless scheme of the bellicose forces of the South Korean military which persist in veiled hostility” — a reference to then-upcoming joint military drills.
He also, notably, said the “fundamental elimination of the U.S. anachronistic arrogance and hostile policy” was required.
The Moon Jae-in government did not directly respond to this criticism, instead seeking to keep things on a positive note: the South Korean President on April 15 called for another inter-Korean summit “regardless of venue and format.”
Seoul may have intentionally refrained from responding to Pyongyang’s complaints, but all was not well, and things were about to get worse.
STAGE 5: MISSILE TESTS AND MEDIA INVECTIVE
Despite Moon’s calls for another summit, North Korean media in mid-April began to step-up criticism — partially in response to the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.
Since then, a major theme in North Korean media has been the threat these joint military exercises pose, and its national security more broadly.
April 25 saw a spokesperson for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) issue a strongly-worded statement warning of an upcoming “corresponding response” to then-ongoing scaled-back joint air combat drills.
The pronouncements were, importantly, carried by party daily the Rodong Sinmun and aired by the Korean Central Television (KCTV).
And then, after a hiatus of 18 months, North Korea on May 4 test-fired “long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons,” including what appears to be a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), the KN-23.
Seoul appears to have sought to use humanitarian assistance as a means to break the deadlock with Pyongyang.
Pyongyang responded the following day, by test-firing two KN-23 SRBMs.
A major theme in North Korean media has been the threat these joint military exercises pose, and its national security more broadly
North Korean external-focused media also downplayed South Korea’s planned humanitarian assistance, dismissing it as a way to sidestep “fundamental issues” between the two.
The difference in opinion between the two Koreas over the humanitarian assistance also appears to have become more stark.
In late May, North Korean media continued to disparage Seoul’s offers of humanitarian aid, describing it as a “non-essential and secondary issue” and urging it to solve “fundamental problems” between the two instead.
Unswayed by the criticism, the South Korean government on May 17 announced plans to provide $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea via the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Seoul also said it would allow a long-stalled visit by South Korean business people to the KIC.
Both decisions were made public, of course, following a face-to-face meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group in Seoul on May 10 — further underlining just how reliant South Korea was on approval from Washington.
Abortive plans began to accumulate. Along with the unfulfilled Tamiflu delivery, another representative case was Seoul’s failed plan to provide 50,000 metric tons of rice to Pyongyang by the end of September.
Announced by the South Korean unification minister in mid-June, the first signs the shipment would be delayed emerged in July.
During a working-level consultation with the WFP, North Korea expressed its intention to reject the food aid — a protest against the then-planned joint military drills between South Korea and the U.S.
The South Korean unification ministry on September 16 said the plans would be “temporarily suspended” as it was not able to confirm North Korea’s official stance.
STAGE 6: HAS IT COME TO THIS?
North Korean media was growing increasingly sensitive about South Korean military exercises, and at the same time increasing criticism of Seoul.
Stater-run outlets began repeatedly and continuously urging the South Korean government to resolve “fundamental issues” between the two — including the halt of military drills and other “hostile acts” — in order to resume inter-Korean talks.
Ahead of the eighth Moon-Trump summit, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on June 27 sent a warning to both the U.S. and South Korea in a statement issued by director-general of its Department of American Affairs Kwon Jong Gun.
In his comments, Kwon openly slammed Seoul’s efforts to mediate between North Korea and the U.S., telling South Korea not to intervene “considering the origin of the DPRK-U.S. hostile relations.”
Pyongyang maintained the tone of criticism even after Kim and Trump’s surprise meeting on June 30 in Panmunjom, a meeting in which Moon sought to present himself as a key mediator.
On July 11, an unnamed policy director at the foreign ministry’s Institute for American Studies vehemently criticized South Korea’s acquisition of two F-35A stealth fighters.
The pronouncement was significant for two key reasons.
North Korean media was growing increasingly sensitive about South Korean military exercises
First, Pyongyang warned that that it could develop and test “special armaments to completely destroy the lethal weapons reinforced in South Korea.”
Secondly, the fact that a pronouncement issued by the MFA focused on attacking the South Korean government was unusual: the CPRC, which is responsible for inter-Korean relations, would typically issue such a statement.
Inter-Korean relations then rapidly turned sour as South Korea and the U.S. began joint military drills between August 5 and 20 — exercises intended as an alternative to the now-terminated Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG).
The previous month, Pyongyang had warned that its promise to discontinue nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests was “not a legalized document inscribed on a paper” in a press statement protesting the then-upcoming joint drills.
North Korea’s response to the drills was clear: on July 25, Kim Jong Un organized and guided a “power demonstration” of a “new-type tactical guided weapons.” North Korean media, notably, reported that the test ought to serve as a “solemn warning” to the South.
Between July 25 and September 10, North Korea tested its new weapons eight times.
And, as the drills kicked-off, Kwon Jong Gun said inter-Korean contact would be difficult unless the South Korean government terminated the military exercises or provided “a plausible excuse or elucidation in a sincere manner.”
North Korea then ratcheted up criticism of the South Korean government in a press statement issued by a CPRC spokesperson on August 16 — a response to Moon’s optimistic Liberation Day speech.
The DPRK, the spokesperson said, has “nothing to say any more with the South Korean authorities and no intention to sit down with them again.”
The South Korean authorities, they continued, “had better give up their senseless lingering attachment” to talks.
CONCLUSION: IS A BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBLE?
Moon Jae-in has said that one of his most urgent pending tasks is to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
“If there is dissatisfaction, it too should be raised and discussed,” he suggest last month.
The resumption of inter-Korean talks is also clearly needed to narrow the gap between the two Koreas over important matters including military exercises and the acquisition of strategic assets — and avoid a repeat of the tensions seen earlier this year.
But in spite of inter-Korean deadlock, there appears to be a way out.
The two Koreas have already agreed to discuss major military issues, including the “large-scale military exercises and military buildup” through the setting up of an Inter-Korean Joint Military Committee, it is imperative that that organization be set up and operational as soon as possible.
Focusing on military issues also has other advantages.
“If there is dissatisfaction, it too should be raised and discussed”
Firstly, implementation of the inter-Korean military agreement can take place relatively unimpeded by the sanctions regime. Second, both sides can take steps that are irreversible, as they did when they demolished 20 guard posts and removed landmines from the DMZ last year.
Seoul continues to adhere to its idea of a “virtuous cycle”: that inter-Korean relations will improve alongside progress in denuclearization.
That means that much of this may be out of South Korea’s hands: the outcome of upcoming working-level DPRK-U.S. negotiations will have a major impact on the situation on the peninsula.
Nonetheless, there is one small opening for the two Koreas to independently break the deadlock outside the trilateral framework.
An inter-Korean soccer match is scheduled to be held on October 15 in Pyongyang — potentially a golden opportunity for the two Koreas to regain the lost momentum for talks.
But will the two Koreas be able to seize the window of opportunity and make a turning point? It’s not clear, at least for now.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Inter-Korean summit joint press corps