By Casey Robinson
After a successful Winter Olympics, inter-Korean relations are heading in the right direction with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s proposed meeting on April 27. Accordingly, there is a sense of optimism that relations between North Korea and South Korea will improve. One South Korean ministry official commented, “North Korea has demonstrated it has very strong intentions to improve inter-Korean relations and, if necessary, it can take drastic, unprecedented actions.” However, we have heard similar comments before. There have been four separate occasions in which both North Korea and South Korea came to an agreement to pursue peace in the peninsula: the 1972 Joint Communique, the 1992 Basic Agreement, the 2000 Joint Declaration, and the 2007 Peace Declaration. Each agreement generated hope that Korea was heading in a positive direction. For example, the Nixon administration responded positively after both North and South Korea came to a surprise agreement in 1972. One Asian specialist at the State Department said, “When I first took my present job two years ago, I would have wagered my life savings that the two Koreas would not be unified in my lifetime. Now, the question is, will they be unified before I am reassigned?” Unfortunately, as we all know, the Koreas never unified after that agreement. Therefore, what are the realistic expectations for the coming third inter-Korean summit?
Why the Four Previous Inter-Korean Agreements Failed
After the Korean War, both Korean governments were competing for international recognition, legitimacy, and power over the peninsula and in doing so were uncompromising in their national objectives. For this reason, the 1954 Geneva Convention failed to produce an agreement between both Korean governments. Viewing themselves as the sole legitimate government of Korea, as argued by Hong Yong-pyo, both Seoul and Pyongyang introduced proposals with no compromise and which completely favored themselves. North Korea proposed an electoral law for general actions that would give it power to secure unification under its terms. South Korea, likewise, proposed that elections be held in proportion to the population of North and South Korea, thus ensuring that North Korea would be absorbed into the legality of South Korea. Consequently, with little interest on each side to make compromises and come to an agreement, the armistice agreement never turned into a peace treaty and communication between both governments ceased.
For the next two decades, North and South Korea had very little contact with each other. However, with China and the United States beginning to warm relations in the early-1970s, both Korean governments developed an incentive to talk. With a mutual interest in a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, both Koreas agreed to take steps towards reducing tensions. In their 1972 Joint Communique, both Koreas agreed that reunification should be achieved independently with no reliance on external forces, reunification should be achieved without the use of military force, and to promote national unity despite ideological and political differences among other things. In the following months there was a sense of good feelings between both sides, but once again neither government was sincere in compromising their own values to achieve peace. For example, in 1973, South Korea and North Korea never considered the others’ proposal. South Korea quickly declined North Korea’s proposal for the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo and North Korea quickly declined South Korea’s proposal to sign a Non-Aggression Pact in 1974.
Despite, not following through on their agreement, both Korean governments began to compromise in the 1980s. Specifically, North and South Korea began to sincerely discuss sports exchanges and inter-Korean economic cooperation. Previously, both Korean governments were uncompromising in forming an inter-Korean team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Kim Il-sung declined President Park Chung-hee’s inter-Korean economic proposal in 1978. It could be argued that the North Korean government was under pressure to cooperate. North Korea received major criticism for not allowing South Korean athletes to participate at the 1979 World Table Tennis Championship. In addition, North Korea was beginning to experience economic hardships. Nevertheless, North Korea disregarded its national objective by choosing to engage with a government that it views to be illegitimate in South Korea.
In addition to their uncompromising attitude, there was a sense of mistrust as well. The aftermath of the Korean War created much antagonism between both sides, but continued provocations fueled more resentment and anger towards the other government. From 1955 to 1975, there were approximately 1,157 clashes between North Korean and South Korean forces, with approximately 729 North Korean soldier casualties 163 South Korean soldier casualties, and 150 South Korean civilian casualties. In addition, both governments attempted to assassinate (or at the very least prepared to assassinate) the leader of the other government. As a consequence, there was no suitable environment for inter-Korean peace talks to take place as both sides carried much mistrust against the other. Within one year of the 1972 Joint Communique, provocations continued. Both North and South Korean soldiers continued to clash with one another, the dispute over the Northern Limit Line arose, and North Korea attempted to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee on at least two occasions. In 1976, only four years after the agreement, North Korea would disconnect the hotline connecting to South Korea.
It would take another two decades and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc for both Koreas to enter negotiations once again. In the early 1990s, both Korean governments came to two agreements: The Joint Declaration on Denuclearization and the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression and Exchanges and Cooperation (1992 Basic Agreement). While the Joint Declaration on Denuclearization focused on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, the 1992 Basic Agreement focused on building a peaceful coexistence between both Koreas. In the 1992 Basic Agreement, North and South Korea agreed to respect each other’s system, not to slander or vilify each other, not to sabotage or overthrow each other, transform the present state of the armistice into a solid state of peace, and not to undertake armed aggression against each other.Unlike the 1972 Joint Communique, there was a sense of sincerity between both North and South Korean governments as both were actively engaging with one another through sports, family reunions, and were discussing inter-Korean economic relations. However, just like the 1972 Joint Communique, provocations between North Korea and South Korea would continue with clashes at the demilitarized zone (first occurrence took place three years after the agreement), U.S.-ROK joint-military exercises, and espionage among other things.
Despite setbacks, South Korea nevertheless pushed towards improving relations with its northern counterpart. The Kim Dae-jung administration introduced the Sunshine Policy, which adopted a policy of engagement, established economic relations with North Korea, and accepted the rule of the Kim government in the north. Resulting from the Sunshine Policy was the 2000 Joint Declaration and 2007 Peace Declaration which encouraged respecting the other government, refraining from the use force, movement towards the establishment of a peace treaty, and efforts to achieve unification. The most important development in these agreements was that it created an economic incentive for both Korean governments to restrain from provoking the other. For example, up until its closing, Kaesong Industrial Complex earned North Korea approximately $560 million. Yet, despite this, both North and South Korea would characteristically continue to provoke each other. To make matters worse, North Korea was accused of sinking the South Korean submarine Cheonan and bombarding South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island. Consequently, a strong sense of insecurity and mistrust developed among South Koreans and for the next decade the South Korean government would adopt more hardline policies towards North Korea.
Have the Circumstances Significantly Changed Enough for a Potential Fifth Agreement to be Successful?
From 1948 until the late 1980s, both Korean governments were authoritarian and were uncompromising in their respective objectives. This changed by 1987 when South Korea became a republic and began shifting its policy regarding relations with North Korea. From the 1990s, the South Korean government has given various concessions, mostly economic and humanitarian, to North Korea. Accordingly, it would not be surprising if the Moon Jae-in administration were willing to give concessions to North Korea. For example, the Blue House hinted that it would be willing to accept a nuclear Korea for the time being as it recognizes that denuclearization as a pre-condition is unrealistic. On the other hand, North Korea has rarely, if ever, given concessions to South Korea. North Korean has given little and only benefited from its engagement with South Korea since the 1990s. Accordingly, what are the realistic expectations of North Korea this coming summit? North Korea has recently behaved more respectably towards South Korea in ways such as identifying President Moon by his proper name and title and no longer sending leaflets that are vulgar and offending. However, will North Korea be willing to significantly sacrifice its own national objectives to make concessions? Recently, Kim Jong-un hinted at an understanding towards U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, which have been an obstacle for inter-Korean peacebuilding since the 1972 Joint Communique. If Kim Jong-un is willing to acknowledge this, perhaps North Korea is willing to make some unprecedented concessions to South Korea, such as sign a non-aggression treaty with the recognition that joint exercises will continue.
After decades of provocations against one another, mistrust and insecurity is the biggest obstacle that both Korean governments must overcome. In 2011, former South Korean President Park Guen-hye recognized this in a Foreign Affairs article in which she argued for her Trustpolitik policy. This year, a survey conducted by RealMeter showed that 64.1 percent of South Koreans did not trust North Korea’s sincerity in denuclearization and having a dialogue. On the other hand, North Koreans may not have the same sense of antagonism to South Koreans. While statistics are unavailable, Je Son Lee, a North Korean defector, said that while North Koreans have negative opinions of the United States and Japan, no such feelings exist towards South Korea. So, on a local level, the general South Korean population may pose a larger obstacle than North Koreans in terms of peacebuilding. However, at the governmental level, the North Korean government’s insecurity may be an obstacle towards peace. Despite a recent ease in tensions, North Korea has continued to criticize South Korea’s military decisions. Last month, North Korea criticized South Korea’s move to acquire additional jets during a time of reconciliation and unity. These kind of comments suggests that the North Korean government still feels a sense of insecurity and consequently, may back out of any potential agreement, as it has before.
In order for any potential agreement from the inter-Korean Summit to be successful, both North and South Korea must recognize a need to improve communication and increase transparency. Uncompromising attitudes may not be as large of an obstacle as they once were, but mistrust and insecurity remains a major obstacle in inter-Korean relations. Today, South Koreans continue to fear military hostilities from the North and the North Korean government remains concerned about the potential collapse of the regime. If mistrust and insecurity issues are not adequately addressed, it is likely that the third inter-Korean Summit and a potential fifth agreement will experience a similar fate to that of their predecessors.
Casey Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate at Waseda University. His research interests include the DPRK, U.S. foreign policy, and international development. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.