By Nicholas Hamisevicz
April is often a contentious month for inter-Korean relations. With joint and combined military exercises, along with anniversaries and holidays, there are plenty of opportunities for provocations and hateful rhetoric. April 2014 was no different. An inter-Korean understanding earlier in the year toward ceasing hostile rhetoric has collapsed and North Korea again fired artillery shells toward South Korean islands. These actions, along with the recent satellite images of North Korea’s nuclear test range, don’t suggest movement toward better inter-Korean relations anytime soon.
The rhetoric in April from North Korea has been personal, specific, and harsh in trying to respond to speeches, reports, and actions the regime perceives as threats. The most vitriolic of these verbal attacks were directed toward South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Many of these overly offensive insults came after her meeting with President Obama in South Korea, although North Korea did throw some of the verbal assaults her way in the days and weeks after her speech about unification in Dresden, Germany.
Following the UN Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) report on the dire human rights situation in North Korea, Pyongyang also had hateful verbal attacks for the commission’s chairman, Michael Kirby. On April 22, KCNA vilified Judge Kirby’s sexual orientation. In an attempt to discredit Kirby and the UN COI report, this North Korean action probably brought more attention to the findings and the problems with North Korea.
North Korea’s media also viewed the sinking of the Sewol Ferry more as an opportunity to criticize the South Korean government than to show empathy for those who had died. On April 19, KCNA reported the sinking of the ferry, but it also included statements in the South Korean media critical of the South Korean government. Other North Korean outlets initially had critical reports about the ferry disaster as well. Only four days later would KCNA report that the Central Committee of the Red Cross Society of the DPRK issued a message of condolence and sympathy regarding the Sewol sinking to South Korea’s Red Cross.
These verbal attacks were bookended by North Korea artillery shelling tests. North Korea fired artillery shells on March 31 and April 29. The March 31 incident had North Korea firing about 100 shells into the sea on South Korea’s side of the Northern Limit Line; South Korea returned fire, shooting artillery shells into the sea on North Korea’s side. On April 29, just a few days after President Obama traveled to South Korea, North Korea test fired more artillery shells. However, this time North Korea notified South Korea about the test and none of the shells landed in South Korean waters.
With these more vitriolic statements and artillery tests, the U.S. and South Korea will have to continue to be vigilant and maintain policy coordination. Yet it will remain difficult to determine which rhetoric from North Korea is just rhetoric, which statements are actually a prelude to a provocation or an opening for dialogue, and in turn, how to respond appropriately.
April is usually a tough month for engagement and inter-Korean relations in light of the annual joint U.S.-ROK military exercises and important anniversaries in North Korea. This year the rhetoric and artillery tests from North Korea presented interesting challenges for inter-Korean relations and countries involved in the region. All sides made it through April. However, with the vitriolic statements continuing into May, more time will likely be needed before we see improvements in inter-Korean relations.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America.
Photo from Fresh888’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.