By Nicholas Hamisevicz
For a month often associated with summer doldrums, a lot of things were happening on the Korean peninsula in August 2014. Events such as Pope Francis’s visit to South Korea, the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, a clash between the two Koreas in the West Sea, negotiations over the North Korean cheerleaders and athletic squads that would attend the Asian Games in Incheon, and flowers sent from North Korea to South Korea on the anniversary of former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung’s death all made for a hectic month. In addition and in between all of these events, various signals appeared to have been sent between North and South Korea. The discussions over North Korea’s level of participation in the Incheon Asian Games have been the main conduit for inter-Korean interactions, and the Games will likely be the main forum for inter-Korea interaction in September. However, as is often the case in dealing with North Korea, the ability to create and sustain connections from these potential signals will be key for actual progress in inter-Korean relations.
Preventing connections from forming, both internally and internationally, is something North Korea is very skilled at doing. Internally, there is a lot of stovepiping amongst the North Korean bureaucracy, limiting communication and effectiveness. This has even been seen recently with the reported defection of a person believed to be connected with a North Korean bank, or the bank’s regional branch in Russia, that is thought to work with the illicit activities that generate money for the top leadership; it is likely the defector would still only have limited knowledge about the North Korean leadership because of the “compartmentalized way North Korea functions.” In addition, North Korea’s security apparatus, beyond persecuting its own people, is often organized to have different agencies spy and report on each other as well, rather than be connected to interact in legitimately protecting the nation. North Korea won’t even allow its people to connect to each other; severe travel restrictions are in place for citizens of North Korea. Moreover, North Korea prevents the connections of the economic system that are supposed to flow out of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). North Korea’s rules, regulations, and policies toward its SEZs, whether it is with the Kaesong Industrial Complex or with the SEZs in the northern part of its country, have limited the ability for economic growth within the SEZs and inhibits the backwards and forwards linkages needed for the outpouring of economic activity to the regions surrounding the SEZs themselves that other countries have successfully permitted, allowing for more economic development throughout their respective countries.
With inter-Korean relations, North and South Korea previously held a reunion for separated families this year that provided optimism for future interaction. However, North Korea was unwilling to agree on regularizing subsequent family visits and has not responded positively to recent South Korean overtures to hold a second separated families meeting, preventing a sustained connection between the two sides. Now the optimism has turned to the Asian Games in Incheon as a forum that will provide the momentum needed for better inter-Korean relations. Optimism and hope are good things, but North Korea’s track record in allowing sustained connections in inter-Korean relations quickly reminds everyone of the difficult realities.
There will continue to be inter-Korean interaction leading up to and through the Asian Games in Incheon. The crucial aspect will be if the two Koreas can use the momentum from the Asian Games to move forward with other inter-Korean related dialogues. The two sides will have to interpret and respond to possible signals, and many of those responses from both sides will likely be impacted by the outcome of the debate in South Korea over lifting the May 24th sanctions that strictly limit South Korean interaction with the North. Moreover, the leadership in both North and South Korea will have to figure out if they really want to improve their relationship, and if so, what platforms for inter-Korean relations could be mutually agreed upon. Optimism, signals, and positive interaction are all good things that happened between the two Koreas in August 2014, but the question is “Can they be sustained?” has been and will continue to be a major factor in inter-Korean relations.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photos from Wavy1’s photostream on flickr’s Creative Commons.