December 2015: Ending the Year on Two Down Notes in Inter-Korean Relations


By Nicholas Hamisevicz

A good stretch of optimism in inter-Korean relations ended in December, even before tensions rose in early January 2016 with North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. In December, the two Koreas had a vice-minister meeting, but couldn’t come to any agreements and did not even set a date for future discussions. Moreover, Kim Yang Gon, the director of North Korea’s United Front Department, which is responsible for many of North Korea’s inter-Korean activities, died in a car crash on December 29. Despite 2015 including months of better engagement and the most South Koreans visiting North Korea since 2010, the immediate future of inter-Korean relations is bleak.

North and South Korea were having a decent run of interactions since the late August agreement, a positive step that reduced tensions following a mine explosion along the DMZ that severely injured two South Koreans soldiers. The agreement helped spark more inter-Korean meetings, including the family reunions that took place in October and the vice-minister level meeting in December. However, after two days of discussions in Kaesong, these discussions finished with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress and no prospect for future meetings. As I wrote last month in previewing these talks, “separate aspirations could make it more difficult to reach an agreement.” This seems to be what happened at Kaesong on December 11-12.

The divergent aspirations of each side were really about what comes next in inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang wanted Seoul to allow South Korean businesses and tourists to return to the Mount Kumgang resort area. South Korea desired larger and more frequent family visits, along with the opening of an eco-park along the DMZ and better communication and coordination over operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. North Korea tried to connect the progress on family reunions with the reopening of Mount Kumgang, but South Korea was not willing to make that link; it offered instead separate talks in the future about Mount Kumgang, which the North rejected.

Must Mount Kumgang be the next step once inter-Korean dialog resumes? For North Korea, it certainly seems so. For South Korea, it could be; however, the South Korean government is still looking for an apology for the killing of a South Korean tourist at the resort in 2008 and a stronger guarantee for security of citizens visiting the resort. Maybe Seoul would accept a recognition of the incident similar to the August 25 statement about the mine attack; however, the politics of such a statement could be even more difficult because in this case a citizen was killed. The Park Administration might also want to see progress on denuclearization with North Korea if it were to re-open tours to Mount Kumgang.

Without some acknowledgement of that attack on the South Korean citizen or some movement on denuclearization, it seems unlikely that Seoul would make concessions on  Mount Kumgang. This means that South Korea will have a lot of work to do to convince North Korea to undertake a new inter-Korean relations project. It may all come down to money –  regaining the financial benefits from South Korean businesses and tourism that used to flow to the North Korean government from the Mount Kumgang project has to be a priority for Pyongyang. North Korea knows the financial gain it can receive from South Korea with Mount Kumgang, but the profits for other possible projects are unknown. South Korea will likely have to illustrate how undertakings such as the environmental peace park along the DMZ or the trilateral cooperation on railroads with Russia and North Korea benefit the North, especially financially.

In addition to the setback at the vice-ministers meeting, one of North Korea’s top officials in charge of inter-Korean relations, Kim Yang Gon, died in a car crash on December 29.  Car crashes seem to be a way that some elites on the wrong side of power have been removed in the past. However, Kim Yang Gon seemed to be close to Kim Jong Un, and North Korean official vehicles are known to drive at reckless speeds. He attended appearances with Kim Jong Un that appeared to be unrelated to inter-Korean relations. Moreover, Kim Jong Un himself showed up at the viewing for Kim Yang Gon. Kim Yang Gon is also a cousin of Kim Jong-il and was on the three-person delegation that visited Seoul in October 2014 after the Incheon Asian Games and the two-person delegation that negotiated the August 2015 agreement with South Korea. It’s worth noting of course that being related to the Kim family and being a main intermediary with an important country hasn’t protected people under Kim Jong Un before (see Jang Song-Taek). Kim Yang Gon’s death leaves a lot of uncertainty with inter-Korean relations and will require time to reassess any change in personnel and possibly emphasis from Pyongyang toward inter-Korean relations. His United Front Department position and other leadership changes inside North Korea should be watched closely.

These events were a tough way to end the year, even before being overshadowed by the January 2016 nuclear test. The two Koreas had been able to keep dialogue and interaction going following the August agreement despite events that could have provided an easy excuse for either party to back away. Moreover, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification reported that 2,035 South Koreans visited North Korea in 2015, the most since 2010; this figure doesn’t include those traveling back and forth to the Kaesong Industrial Complex and those who participated in the family reunions.

As 2015 came to a close, inter-Korean relations were back to the even more limited interaction that has generally characterized the relationship since 2008. The two sides will once again have to parse through New Year’s statements for signs of flexibility and potential future avenues for improved engagement. More importantly, South Korea, and its ally in the United States, must pay close attention to North Korea as it prepares for a Party Congress in May, its first Party Congress in 36 years. The January 2016 nuclear test may have been part of the run up to the Party Congress.  Furthermore, the early part of the new year often has multiple U.S.-ROK joint exercises that North Korea view as threatening. However, there could also be a chance eventually for some inter-Korean cooperation if the opportunity can be managed well by both Korean leaders. The events in December, and again in January, put a damper on inter-Korean relations and returned the peninsula to a greater sense of uncertainty for the start of 2016.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is currently undertaking a PhD in World Politics at Catholic University. Previously he was the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Morning Calm Newsletter’s photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

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