By Nicholas Hamisevicz
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a fixture that constantly symbolizes the unresolved tension between the two Koreas. That tension came crashing into plain view in the recent standoff between North and South Korea. In early August, landmines along the DMZ suspected to be recently planted by North Korea injured two South Korean soldiers, which in turn led to South Korea turning on loudspeakers to pump in propaganda across the border. In response, the North Korean military shot at the loudspeakers and threatened additional force if the speakers were not removed by the evening of August 22. Shortly before the deadline, North Korea requested talks with South Korea, and after days of negotiation, the two sides came to a six-point agreement.
Like the standoff over the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) when North Korea pulled its workers in April 2013, the Park Geun-hye administration was able to stand firm and bring North Korea to the table. Park Geun-hye came out of the Kaseong situation with relatively positive support, and it appears the same has happened after the current tensions at the DMZ. Following both negotiations, her administration has tried to use that backing and supposed leverage to push for elements they believe can be the foundation for trust between the two Koreas. Despite getting an understanding with North Korea that contains some of those factors for trust after this latest showdown, there is still a possibility that efforts by the Park administration will be again stymied by North Korea.
The Kaesong standoff was Park Geun-hye’s first test of brinksmanship by North Korea that directly impacted inter-Korean relations. By not chasing after North Korea in an attempt to have it return its workers to the complex, and even proactively moving the process forward for companies to withdraw from Kaesong, the Park administration was able to get North Korea to the negotiating table. Key features from the talks and return to normalized operations were the two Koreas having joint committees to better manage the KIC and prevent another North Korean forced work stoppage from occurring as well as the ability to bring in investment from international companies.
The Park Geun-hye administration has pushed these two elements when discussing Kaesong. The internationalization effort has been limited to one German company, and as KEI’s Troy Stangarone points out, there is a slight caveat as the company sells to the South Korean firms in the complex rather than producing anything in Kaesong. Moreover, in attempts to use the joint committee for discussions on running Kaesong, North Korea has either boycotted the meetings or tried to unilaterally force changes like removing wage caps and increasing the wages of the workers despite the earlier agreed upon rate. Thus, even with the seemingly upper-hand from those negotiations, North Korea has blocked those avenues of trust Park Geun-hye was trying to build.
Park Geun-hye was also trying to get regularized family reunions scheduled as another way to develop inter-Korean trust. The Park administration has often insisted that family reunions come first, and then other aspects of the relationship could be explored. Within the recent agreement, the statement “The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south… and continue to hold such reunions in the future…” seems to indicate that the Park administration finally has in writing a statement committing North Korea to continuous family visits.
The two sides agreed to meet on September 7 to discuss the next family reunions; however, North Korea has previously backed away from scheduled family reunions under the Park Geun-hye administration. Thus, while the acceptance of family visits is an immediate win for the Park administration, it can’t be seen as an inevitable occurrence because of the North Korean government.
Another interesting aspect from the settlement is that Park Geun-hye is trying to utilize her improved relations with Beijing for leverage over North Korea in inter-Korean relations. The Park administration has improved South Korea’s bilateral ties with China, and despite the optics of attending a military parade in the country that last invaded Korea, Park Geun-hye traveled to China to watch the ceremony and met with Xi Jinping. Some of the analysis on her decision to go suggests that she feels she can garner additional support from Beijing for how she is handling inter-Korean relations. President Park even praised China for helping diffuse the tense situation on the Korean peninsula. Thus, Park Geun-hye could possibly be banking on her relationship with Xi Jinxing to help provide the needed support and pressure for her trust building efforts with North Korea.
After what could have been a dangerous escalatory situation between the two Koreas, negotiations allowed both sides to deescalate the situation. The outcome from those intense talks was a statement that illustrated once again some of the main elements that Park Geun-hye administration has tried to use in her trustpolitik policy toward North Korea. In previous understandings, North Korea has blocked the Park administration’s attempts to use those aspects of the agreements for improving inter-Korean relations. Family reunions have been an avenue of engagement South Korea has tried to use to create a better environment between the two countries, and there is a real possibility it could happen again with these upcoming family visits as well. The tension seems diffused for now, but there is always next month.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is currently undertaking a PhD in World Politics at Catholic University. Previously he was the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views represented here are his own.
Photo from Expert Infantry’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.