By Nicholas Hamisevicz
“Survive and advance” is a phrase often associated with the month of March with the NCAA basketball tournament in the United States, but the phrase could be applied to the month of April for events on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas, as well as the other countries involved in Northeast Asia, seemed resigned to the fact that no major breakthrough would happen until the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises were completed. April has traditionally been a contentious month with missile tests and the suspension of activities at Kaesong previously occurring during this time, and the heightened possibility of a provocation centered around the military exercises, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, or Kim Il-sung’s birthday. While there were some incidents that could create difficulties, at least none of them appear to be issues that would automatically hold back inter-Korean progress. Having survived April, we will have to see if there will be any advancement between the two Koreas in May.
North Korea linked progress in both the Six Party Talks framework and in inter-Korea relations to the suspension or ending of the military exercises. With the exercises lasting until late April, South Korea had little opportunity to engage North Korea. During the month, the Park Geun-hye administration tried to take steps to prepare for possible increased interaction in May and in the future. The administration announced that it was going to permit more journalists to attend events in North Korea that feature inter-Korean affairs. The Park government also hopes to entice more interaction with North Korea through more sporting events between the two Koreas; Kim Jong-un continues to emphasize sports, and sports was the backdrop for possibly the best chance for inter-Korean dialogue after the Incheon Games.
It wasn’t just a quiet month while waiting for the military exercises to end as there were incidents that could affect success of inter-Korean relations in May. North Korea continued to demand higher wages for the workers in Kaesong, and the dispute still seems unsettled. Moreover, North Korea seems to have hindered an attempt by South Korea to have more business and diplomatic interaction via railroads. South Korea has been trying to become a full member of the Organization for Cooperation between Railways, an international organization created by former socialist countries. North Korea is a full member of this body, and supposedly stated that it will not attend the next meeting in May in South Korea, eliminating the chance for unanimous consent on South Korea’s full membership bid at that meeting. Moreover, a South Korean national who is a student at New York University was caught crossing into North Korea has been detained, bringing the total number of South Koreans officially held in North Korea up to four.
April has been a difficult month for positive interaction between the two Koreas throughout the year. The military exercises are over for now, and despite some frustrations, the two sides have an opportunity to move forward in May. The two Koreas have been able to survive. It is the advancement of inter-Korean ties that have been difficult.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.