Tag Archive | "inter-korean relations"

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.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

November 2015: Bookended by Military Operations, Talks Move Forward in Inter-Korean Relations

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

In November, both Koreas continued to demonstrate a willingness for inter-Korean contact while also maintaining a commitment to improve security. Military actions over the past few months have not scuttled opportunities for dialogue. Inter-Korean talks in November led to scheduling talks set for December 11 at the vice minister level. The two sides will now have to consider further whether the possibilities of cooperation outweigh security concerns.

On the positive side, the two Koreas were able to meet on November 26 to discuss possibilities for a higher-level meeting in the future. Both Koreas are still trying to implement parts of the August 25 agreement that was made following a month of increased tensions. In early August, two South Korean soldiers were injured by land mines at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); the South Korean government said that the land mines were recently placed along the border by North Korea and responded by reinstituting the process to pump propaganda broadcasts over the DMZ into North Korea via loudspeakers. In October, North and South Korea were able to conduct family reunions, checking off one aspect of the agreement. The two sides are now working on another section of the August 25 agreement in which the two Koreas promised they would hold high-level talks.

At the November 26 meeting, the two Koreas agreed to hold vice-minister level talks in Kaesong, North Korea on December 11. It appears that North Korea would like to discuss the possibility of resuming suspended tourism operations to Mount Kumgang in North Korea as part of this dialogue. South Korea seems to want an arrangement for regularized family reunions and high-level inter-governmental meetings between the two Koreas. Different agenda items at this stage shouldn’t be surprising; however, separate aspirations could make it more difficult to reach an agreement.

In addition to the governmental talks, the two sides also had smaller exchanges in November. South Korean National Assembly members were allowed to take a day trip to Kaesong to visit ancient Korean burial sites. After an initial ban, South Korean officials associated with the running of the Kaesong Industrial Complex were permitted back into North Korea. Similar to a visit to North Korea by South Korean Catholic priests in October, Buddhist leaders from both Koreas were able to meet in Kaesong. Lastly, North and South Korean cooperation with Russia in regard to bulk cargo shipping moved forward with further tests for getting Russian coal to South Korea via railroads and the port in Rajin, North Korea. These smaller interactions help create an environment of regular contact and were supplements to the higher-level inter-Korean meeting.

Despite these signs of progress, the two Koreas continued to conduct military operations that could easily give either side an excuse to cease further interactions. Three days before the November 26 talks with North Korea, the South Korean military engaged in artillery exercises to coincide with the anniversary of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea subsequently threatened South Korea and argued that the artillery drills might prevent North Korean officials from attending the talks. The Park administration went ahead with the exercises regardless. President Park even emphasized that strong security is an important part of her administration’s policy to build better inter-Korean relations.

Two days after the November 26 meeting, North Korea demonstrated its continuing plans to develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability. Having claimed a successful underwater missile test in May 2015, it conducted another test on November 28. As he did for the earlier test, Kim Jong-un was believed to have attended this launch as well. U.S. and South Korea media reports cited intelligence officials as saying that the test was not an overall success.

November 2015 was another month that demonstrated that the two Koreas could carry out positive interactions while at the same time bolstering their defenses. Shortly before and after the inter-Korean talks on November 26, both Koreas conducted military operations that could be interpreted as threatening, giving either government a reason to move forward cautiously, or to stop progress altogether. Can the two Koreas continue to have exchanges within the context of military enhancements by both sides? The vice-ministerial meeting on December 11 and other events in December will be key to determining whether sustained interaction between North and South will continue.

 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.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

October 2015: Building from Family Reunions While Tensions Remain in Inter-Korean Relations

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

Throughout the month of October, the possibility of one event and the expectation of two others were prominent in inter-Korean relations. With North Korea celebrating the anniversary of its Workers Party on October 10, there was also some initial concern that the event would be marked by a missile launch or nuclear test, which would damage the possibility of the family reunions scheduled for later in the month. No missile or nuclear test occurred, and both the parade for the anniversary and the family reunions took place. There were even some smaller civilian exchanges between the two Koreas that seemed to add to the overall positive atmosphere stemming from the outcomes of the family visits. However, the possibility of a test of North Korea’s long range missile capabilities or of a nuclear device is still real; moreover, the Park Geun-hye administration just put forth a budget request for an increase in military spending, claiming the need to strengthen South Korea’s ability to respond to North Korean provocations. Thus, while the two sides could build off the family visits and civilian exchanges that took place in October, an improvement in inter-Korean relations could still be a month-to-month determination.

While there was some initial speculation that North Korea would conduct a provocation on or around the October 10 Workers Party of Korea anniversary, satellite imagery and other aspects suggested a test wasn’t imminent. Although there was no test, the North Korean government did hold a large military parade to celebrate the anniversary, which revealed three significant points that could influence the future  of inter-Korean relations: the possibility of any new weapons capabilities from North Korea, such as a potentially new version of the KN-08 long-range missile, the road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile North Korea has been trying to develop; a thawing of North Korea-China tensions with Liu Yunshan, Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member, visiting and subsequent North Korea-China interactions; and another public speech by Kim Jong-un.

The other big event in October was the successful reunion of families separated by the Korean War. An agreement in September between the two Koreas cooled tensions that arose during a difficult August and brought about another opportunity to reunite divided families. The families met at the Mount Kumgang resort, but nothing with the North Korean government is ever easy.  South Korean reporters complained that their laptops and notebooks were thoroughly searched by North Korean authorities at the border crossing, slowing down their ability to cover the story. Also, the families from South Korea were encouraged to bring winter clothes, medicine, and money in U.S. dollars as gifts for their relatives in the North, but the gifts had to be sent ahead likely to be searched, and it was clear their families in North Korea would not be able to keep all the money the South Korean family members gave them.

Despite these drawbacks, the Park Geun-hye administration is trying to use the overall momentum and attention from the family visits to undertake other inter-Korean activities. During the week of the family visits, the South Korean government allowed a group of Catholic priests often associated with more progressive causes to visit North Korea to attend a mass on reunification organized by the North Korean government’s official organization for Catholics. A few days after the family reunions, civilian groups from South Korea travelled north to deliver fertilizer and other aid. Moreover, the South Korean government allowed South Korean labor groups to visit North Korea and participate in friendly soccer games with the North Korean government trade union group.  The Park administration is hoping these efforts will lead to inter-Korean government meetings. Kim Kwang-jin, South Korean National Security Adviser, suggested that the August agreement states that the two sides should have a government-to-government meeting after the family reunions, and that South Korea will push for talks with North Korea. In addition, President Park would likely want to see another round of family visits scheduled soon. A big part of the August agreement from the South Korean perspective was the language indicating the two sides agreed to multiple family reunions. The Park administration has pointed to multiple and continuous family reunions as an opportunity for trust-building between the two sides.

Even with some momentum from the family visits, those efforts can quickly be curtailed. There is still the possibility North Korea could test a missile or a nuclear weapon in the near future. In late October, there were reports suggesting that North Korea was digging a new tunnel at its nuclear test site. Also in late October, the Park administration announced plans to increase the defense budget in order to better respond to North Korean provocations. These moves don’t immediately kill the possibilities emerging from the family reunions, but both sides can easily use them as reasons to do so in the future.

The two Koreas were able to move slightly forward after the big events in October. The North Korean Workers Party anniversary on October 10 was not accompanied by a missile or nuclear test, which in turn allowed for the family reunions to take place as scheduled from October 20-26.  The two sides also had a few positive civilian exchanges as well. The Park administration is clearly looking to use the positive atmosphere from the family reunions and civilian exchanges to set up an inter-Korean governmental meeting and another round of family visits. The Park administration had pushed for continuous family reunions as an indicator of trust with the North Korean government, and having two successful reunions without cancellation could give her the opportunity to claim success and try other ideas as well. Yet, the looming potentiality of a North Korean provocation through a missile or nuclear test or the increase of the South Korea’s military budget could quickly wipe away any trust built in October.

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 Will De Freitas’ photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (1)

September 2015: Tough Rhetoric between Deal and Potential Meetings in Inter-Korean Relations

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

After the month of August featured shooting, shouting, and a negotiated joint statement, September mainly focused on laying the groundwork necessary to implement the August 25 agreement or to scuttle it. The two Koreas were able to agree on family visits scheduled for October 20-26. However, the last half of September saw both sides probing to figure out how willing the other was to stick with the agreement. Reports of a possible missile test disguised as a satellite launch by North Korea would force South Korea to decide whether a launch would require a temporary suspension of the already scheduled family visits. Thus, inter-Korean relations throughout September may not have reverted back to the contentiousness seen prior to the August joint statement, but the dynamics between the two Koreas in September were still antagonistic enough that both sides could easily backslide.

Apart from reducing tensions along the DMZ, the August joint statement also called for inter-Korean family reunions. The two Koreas were able to have meetings in September and agreed upon having the family reunions from October 20 to October 26 at the Mount Kumgang resort. Mount Kumgang hosted the previous family visits meeting under Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un. The Park administration has pushed for family reunions on a consistent basis and considers them an important avenue for building trust between the two Koreas.

However, with North Korea’s actions and statements, the family reunions in October are far from certain. The North Korean government warned South Korea not to gloat about the joint statement, insisting that it did not represent an apology regarding the land mine blasts that severely injured two South Korean soldiers.

Moreover, the North Korean government stated that it has restarted its nuclear facility and is preparing to launch another satellite. The initial thinking was that North Korea might time a nuclear test or a missile test masked as a satellite launch around October 10, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea. Recent imagery suggests that North Korea might not be able to launch by October 10; however, North Korean scientists told CNN that they do not have to launch on a particular holiday or anniversary.

Is it possible that North Korea is trying to sabotage the family reunions before they occur? North Korea could also be trying to force the Park Geun-hye administration into making a final decision whether or not to proceed with the family visits despite possible provocations from North Korea. Would Park Geun-hye allow the family reunions to happen if North Korea tested a missile?

September turned out to be one of the transition periods in inter-Korean relations during which the two sides tried  to simply make it through the month in order to reach an opportunity for better engagement. Tough rhetoric from North Korea could potentially increase the possibility of a nuclear or missile provocation, and puts the onus on the Park Geun-hye administration to decide what, if anything, would force them to cancel the family reunions which they worked so hard to achieve. While the difficult interactions in September may not have made things worse, improving inter-Korean relations will remain difficult in the months ahead.

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 Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)


About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.