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The Peninsula

After South Korea’s Call for Dialogue with North Korea: Preparing a New Game with Kim Jong-un?

Published April 18, 2013

By Jinho Park

While North Korea ratchets up the tension in Northeast Asia, Kim Jong-un made the bold—though not surprising—decision of withdrawing all North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Recently, South Korea and the United States together have called for a dialogue with North Korea. North Korea has dismissed the offer by denouncing it as a “crafty trick.” To some extent, offering a dialogue manages North Korea’s provocations. So, is it a signal of moving into a new game on the Korean Peninsula? For South Korea it is now crucial to plan what to do next while preparing for a new game with Kim Jong-un.

First, South Korea’s call for a dialogue is not an “out of the box” response to North Korean decision-makers. So, it is unlikely that this offer changes the atmosphere surrounding North Korea’s decision-making process. As the reform of the intelligence service is under discussion in South Korea to strengthen its human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities to better access information of value in North Korea, the way for reforming HUMINT operations should be focused on providing stories—beyond gathering information—to be discussed and exerting an influence on the consensus-building process among decision-makers in Pyongyang. Anything taken for granted by North Korea does not change the cognitive and intuitive the mind-set of its leaders. We have to ‘educate them to learn from us’ through HUMINT operations.

Second, if North Korea decides to sit at the table with Korea or the U.S., what can we discuss with North Korea to change a negotiation paradigm, while not going back to the status-quo? Among several options for North Korea—probably in consultation with China—is to hold a separate dialogue regarding different issues with South Korea and the U.S. respectively. To U.S. policymakers, this is a dangerous option, to sit back and watch a dialogue between the two Koreas regarding issues such as nuclear and missile development and proliferation. To South Korea, a top priority is to resume the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Last month, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification introduced an ambitious plan to attract foreign investment in the Complex and further transform it into an international complex. From the founding spirit of the Kaesong Industrial Complex for mutual economic benefits, it was regrettable that the Ministry of Unification did not articulate how such a plan would be helpful for the North Korean regime at the same time. After all, what is going on now seems to return to the status-quo rather than a paradigm shift.

Third, the Park administration needs to explore a new partner for supplementing its efforts toward building political and economic confidence with North Korea to overcome the realistic limits of cooperation with the U.S., China, and Japan. An opportunity to work with a new partner would create the chance to intensify a multi-directional approach to North Korea. The new partner should be one who can exert an influence on North Korea and at the same time be relatively free from North Korean provocations. In this regard, the EU is potentially a very appropriate partner. As the EU has a strong and strategic relationship with the U.S. and China, the EU could be a reliable and sustainable broker between the two Koreas, hopefully the U.S. and China as well. President Park Geun-hye visited North Korea in 2002 under the auspice of the Korea-Europe Foundation.

Fourth, while discussing what to do with North Korea, South Korea should develop a realistic assessment of how the tension on the Korean Peninsula affects the strategic competition in Asia between the U.S. and China. Chinese officials recently expressed their serious concerns about U.S.’s recent military demonstration—both air and naval power—in responding to North Korea bellicose threats. Although the U.S. and China have a different strategic perspective in dealing with North Korean issues, they share a common view on North Korean issues in regards to how to protect and increase their own national interests, particularly in Northeast Asia.

It is not certain whether this common denominator among the two global powers is helpful for South Korea’s strategic interests. As it is incredibly difficult for South Korea to reduce the perspective gap between the U.S. and China, South Korea needs to find and expand common interests with the U.S. and China respectively in negotiating with North Korea while increasing cooperation among the three players. This balancing effort between the two superpowers should be one of key strategic guidelines for implementing President Park’s Trust-building Process on the Korean Peninsula.

Lastly, it should be noted that Americans do not have a clear understanding about what President Park’s Trust-building Process is and how it is different from former policies.  Through the recent Korea-US Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on April 12, the U.S. welcomed the process. Such diplomatic rhetoric does not necessarily mean that the U.S. supports the new initiative under a common approach for the goal of peaceful denuclearization. What the two nations can do together is still to be seen. In a similar vein, the upcoming trilateral Korea-China-Japan summit talks in Seoul would be the first official venue for discussing the initiative among the three leaders together. Some argue that building a trilateral cooperative mechanism among the three nations for the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula might be more challenging than achieving a similar goal among Korea, the U.S., and China.  The reason is that China and Japan do not have significant common ground to cooperate.

President Park Geun-hye faces a tough and challenging deadlock with North Korea. The same is true for North Korea’s leaders. In continuing negotiations with North Korea, the current situation should not been viewed as a matter of ‘strategic patience’, but as a rare chance of ‘taking steps toward paradigm shift.’ Adhering to strategic patience will at best control the escalation of tensions, while not resolving issues with North Korea.

Mr. Jinho Park is a Legislative Aide to South Korean Legislator Jinha Hwang of the ruling Saenuri Party, also a non-resident fellow of Korea Defense & Security Forum (KODEF) in Seoul.

Photo from Joseph A. Ferris III’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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