By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After the disappointment of not getting a high-level meeting following the Incheon Asian Games agreement, it looked like inter-Korean relations would remain stalled until 2015. However, South Korea preempted North Korea’s traditional New Year’s Day announcement by requesting an inter-Korean meeting early in 2015. The request helped the Park Geun-hye administration seize the initiative in inter-Korean relations while precluding it from having to respond to any perceived opening in the upcoming New Year’s Day statement from North Korea. However, North Korea raised the stakes with Kim Jong Un stating that a summit meeting between the two Korean leaders would be possible under the right conditions. The two sides started out 2015 early and strong, but the rest of the year will be determined by actions, not words.
In an interesting move, the Park administration formally requested the meeting with North Korea through the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, making the committee the intended counterpart for the proposed meeting. While President Park technically chairs the committee and has Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae as a vice-chairman, the committee itself has not been seen as a direct interlocutor with North Korea. The committee was officially established in July 2014 and is made up of fifty members that include government officials, National Assembly members of both major parties, government-run think tanks experts, and private North Korean specialists. The committee’s establishment was part of the Park administration’s overall effort in 2014 to raise the awareness and readiness for unification in South Korea. The Park administration has said the committee is supposed to develop plans preparing for unification and implement the ideas given in her Dresden address and other unification proposals.
Requesting an inter-Korean meeting just before the start of the year was a good move that helped place the Park Geun-hye administration in a position that can be seen as proactive and illustrate that it is trying to improve inter-Korean relations. The timing was also significant because North Korea has been under other difficult pressures. North Korea has been trying to refute the testimonies and evidence in the United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea’s human rights situation (UN COI report). Moreover, the recommendations of the UN COI report, including referring Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court, keeps making its way through the UN despite North Korea’s counter efforts. North Korea also currently has uneasy relations with China and increased tensions with the U.S. over the hacking of Sony Pictures. This early proposal could have been a reminder to North Korea from the Park Geun-hye administration that North Korea’s only true option is to work with South Korea to reduce the overall strains it faces. The move could also be the Park administration trying to take advantage of North Korea being in a potentially weaker position in the hopes that North Korea would engage on South Korea’s terms.
This proposal seems to have similar elements to the one after the Incheon Asian Games. Minister Ryoo said South Korea was open to discussing any issue, including reducing or ending the May 24 sanctions and reopening tourism at Mount Kumgang. However, it is interesting that if South Korea was offering a meeting along the same parameters as it was before, that it would not suggest official, high-level government channels of interaction used successfully already with North Korea rather than technically through the committee. This request seems to be asking North Korea for more than before, which is to recognize a committee it has routinely condemned as a group designed to prepare ways to force reunification of the Korean peninsula.
Despite the Rodong Sinmun criticizing Park Geun-hye and her presidential unification committee just days after the meeting request, Kim Jong-un in his annual New Year’s Day speech increased the stakes by saying North Korea was open to high-level talks and even a summit meeting between the two Korean leaders if the circumstances were right. The South Korean Unification Minister responded positively, noting that South Korea could talk to North Korea in any format. Additionally, Park Geun-hye has expressed her willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un before, and recently Russia invited both Korean leaders to attend an event marking the end of World War II; thus, there are many options for the two Koreas to interact.
While the timing of the initial request by the Park administration tries to assert an advantage for South Korea, it also comes at a time of difficulty in U.S.-North Korea relations after the hack of Sony. The FBI accused North Korea of a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in response to The Interview movie, and the Obama administration wouldn’t acknowledge being responsible for North Korea’s Internet troubles during the past week, making it difficult to determine the full extent of the United States’ response to the attack. During a State Department briefing on December 30, a spokesperson said the U.S. supports “improved inter-Korean relations” but didn’t have further comments about the Park administration’s proposal for a meeting. Reaching out to North Korea while the U.S. is taking stronger actions against the DPRK is a dynamic South Korea has experienced before. The poor inter-Korean relations in 2014 may provide the Park administration some flexibility as a major breakthrough from this current meeting request is unlikely, allowing the Obama administration to support a slight improvement between the two Koreas while still punishing North Korea for the attack on Sony Pictures.
The call for better inter-Korean relations at the start of a new year began a few days early. The Park Geun-hye administration attempted to take the initiative by proposing a meeting before the usual New Year’s Day pronouncements are made and interpreted for openings on each side of the 38th parallel. North Korea countered by saying high level meetings could be done, and a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Park Geun-hye was possible as well. The new year often offers hope for a better future; however, as traditionally with inter-Korean relations, only actual results can move the relationship forward in 2015.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo from Korea.net’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.