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March 2015: Backwards Steps in Inter-Korean Relations


By Nicholas Hamisevicz

March was expected to be a difficult month for inter-Korean relations with the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises taking place and the lack of progress between the two Koreas in January and February. Unfortunately, events in March suggest even more difficult times ahead for relations between North and South Korea even without military exercises occurring. Across the economy, human rights, and security fronts, North Korea pushed and prodded South Korea to try to gain an advantage and prevent perceived attempts by South Korea for unification by absorption. The scheduled ending of the U.S.-ROK military exercises on April 24 may help bring about a better environment to work on these issues, but it won’t be enough. The two Koreas will need to interact at a more sustained level in order to solve the disputes that arose in March.

North Korea has once again unilaterally taken action in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) that could hurt the facility’s ability to function and damage the main avenue for inter-Korean economic exchange. The North Korean government declared that South Korean companies must increase the wages they pay North Korean workers more than the contractually agreed amount. The South Korean government has rejected the statement by North Korea about the wage hike believing that the issue should be discussed in the joint committee set up after the temporary shutdown of the KIC. Reports point to April 10 as the date when South Korean companies would have to pay the increased wage. The South Korean government doesn’t want the companies to pay and is sending a letter to the companies telling them not to comply with the wage hike. The mishandling of this issue could cause fissures between the Park administration and the businesses she is trying to woo back into Kaesong and internationalize it. In addition to the difficulties, previous agreements over Kaesong require the two Koreas to negotiate over the rent South Korean companies must pay North Korea for using the land in Kaesong.

Also concerning for inter-Korean relations is the potential difficulties ahead with human rights. In March, the DPRK revealed that it had arrested two South Korean citizens for spying. The South Korean government denies that these two people are spies and has demanded its citizens be returned. Relatively little info has come out on this situation. North Korea says these two people were arrested late last year, and the South Korean government is not saying why these two men were out of the country and on the Chinese border with North Korea.

North Korea has tried to use the detention of U.S. citizens in the past to try to gain concessions and advantages in relations; however, the detentions actually held back relations and nothing really moved forward until after the detainees were released.. For inter-Korean relations, the danger of no progress because of these detainees is potentially there as well.

With the annual U.S.-ROK military exercises during this time, North Korea often tries to demonstrate some of its abilities, argue that the exercises are preparation for war, and readies its forces for that perceived potential war.  This year is no different. North Korea fired seven ground-to-air missiles into the East Sea.

Also worrisome in the security realm is the announcement from South Korea that it was North Korea who hacked nuclear power plants and officials in the South Korean nuclear company that runs those plants. This cyber attack occurred in December, but with the findings indicating North Korea as behind the hack, it demonstrates North Korea’s cyber capabilities to penetrate multiple areas of South Korean society. Its worrisome and dangerous that North Korea is targeting important power sources in South Korea and that the potential damage from these attacks can be immediately devastating.

These strong moves taken by North Korea require significant diplomacy and deterrence by South Korea in order to work through these economic, human rights, and security issues between the two Koreas. The difficulty will be in the fact that South Korea will want to use diplomacy over Kaesong and the detainees, yet North Korea has tried to push its demands in both of these areas. While diplomacy is also important in the security realm, deterrence will still be vital for South Korea. North Korea continues to improve its missile and cyber warfare capabilities; moreover, the recent cyber attacks on the nuclear power plants illustrate how North Korea is willing to go after sensitive targets in South Korea in an attempt to create panic, confusion, and even destruction. The anticipation was for a difficult month of inter-Korean relations; unfortunately, the difficulties that did occur in March will make inter-Korean relations even more complicated in the months ahead.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own. 

Photo from Matt Paish’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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