In yet another round of charm offensive by North Korea, it proposed to South Korea to hold senior-level meetings, to which South Korea readily responded. Surprisingly, this change of heart came from after it had raised tensions last spring with repeated threats to fire nuclear-tipped missiles against Seoul and Washington. Though this was seen as a potential signal of Pyongyang’s willingness to seek better ties and the resumption of lucrative cooperative projects, the meeting at the Peace House on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, north of Seoul, on 12 February 2014 ended with little progress. Pyongyang called for the delay of annual US-South Korean military drills set to start on 24 February. South Korea refused, arguing that the routine annual military that are purely defensive in nature cannot be linked to a purely humanitarian matter of family reunions scheduled on 20 February. Pyongyang sees the military drills as preparations for an invasion.
This meeting was the highest between the two Koreas in recent years. Earlier, they held a series of high-level meetings in 2007 including a second summit of their leaders. Nuclear envoys met in 2011 on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia. Since then, bilateral ties had nosedived. There was a plan in June 2013 to hold a high-level meeting but it fell apart because of a protocol dispute over who would represent each side.
On 20 February 2014, the Koreas are to hold reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War. This reunion meeting is to end after five days. If held, this will be the first of their kind in more than three years. Though there was no fixed agenda for the 12 February meeting, South Korea insisted that irrespective of the outcome of the joint meeting, the scheduled reunions should go ahead smoothly. The Ministry of Unification, responsible for ties with North Korea, is working hard on this. Notwithstanding the joint meeting making little progress and Pyongyang’s anger over the military drills, the reunions are likely to take place as North Korea seems to be keen on building good ties with Seoul as it needs investment and resume the stalled joint projects. South Korea insists that the scheduled reunion of families should be the first step towards improving inter-Korean ties. Both sides agreed to continue discussion but could not agree on a date for the next meeting.
But North Korea is hard bargainers. Its contention was that while basically it agrees to hold the reunions, it is against it to take place at a time when the military drills were under way. If Pyongyang sticks to this position, even if the reunions take place, it may cancel the part of the reunions that overlaps with the first two days of the military drills. It may be recalled that Pyongyang cancelled planed reunions at the last minute in September 2013 but it is unlikely to happen again that way this time as now it feels improved ties with the South would bring help by way of investment for its struggling economy. Seen from South Korea’s perspective, it has softened stance considerably since tension heightened in 2013 and now given the perceived change in attitude in Pyongyang, one can expect that both could be capable of imaginative solutions and address to issues that at one time looked difficult to address. That could be the optimistic view but given the unpredictable and at times irrational steps that the young leader in North Korea has taken in recent times, it is difficult to come to any conclusive position of the developments in the coming weeks.
North Korea’s nuclear program remains at the core of inter-Korean problems. Though President Park Geun-hye may be keen to accelerate push for unification by enunciating “trustpolitik” with a view to win North’s trust, she is unlikely to accept Pyongyang’s recent proposals for a series of measures that are needed for easing tensions before any constructive deals could be worked out. South Korea and the United States insist that Pyongyang must take sincere steps towards nuclear disarmament and show sincerity to improve relations with South Korea before any firm commitment can be made by South Korea to help North Korea’s economy. Though South Korea is guaranteed by the US for its security as an ally, Seoul still feels insecure and cannot overlook the barrage of threats and provocations from Pyongyang in 2013 after the international community condemned its third nuclear tests.
But North Korea is undeterred. The regime in Pyongyang sees maintenance of nuclear weapon is the only means to guarantee its security and is unlikely to abandon this option. The regime sees lessons from the past events in countries like Iraq and Libya. As a sovereign state, North Korea may be entitled to adopt the policy as it thinks best for its national interests but given the belligerent utterances in recent times, it sends a sense of insecurity to its neighbours. Moreover a nuclear North Korea runs risk of spawning similar developments in countries such as Japan, South Korea and could also be Taiwan. The prospect of a nuclearized Northeast Asia will be unwelcome in any calculation for regional and world peace.
But Pyongyang has repeatedly vowed to expand its nuclear arsenal and is building nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the American continent. Whether Pyongyang has mastered the technology needed to mount an atomic bomb on a missile remains doubtful but the will and determination to do so, if not already achieved, is a disturbing proposition. The latest fundamental policy declared by Kim Jung-un is byeongjin, meaning North Korea would pursue “parallel progress” in developing nuclear weapons and focusing on economic growth.
But North Korea has all kinds of problems, most of them self-created. There are a lot of internal uncertainties. Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, whom he executed in December 2013 was seen the only pro-reformer and was trying to introduce some elements of market economy on the Chinese model. Eliminating him and subsequently his entire family has not only shocked China but other countries as well and this shows internal stability remains fragile. With Jang gone, his goal for economic growth is a huge setback. If Kim Jung-un thought that by executing Jang, he has consolidated power, the outside world would not view his action sympathetically. The outside world condemns the brutal and anachronistic nature of the North Korean regime with more scepticism than before. If Jang’s execution is symptomatic of his fragile hold on power, the possibility of Kim staging another sneak attack on South Korea to strengthen his domestic support base is not unthinkable. Seoul and Washington need to be on their guard to pre-empt such a possibility.
(The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku niversity, Japan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)