By Nicholas Hamisevicz
With Koreans returning from the Lunar New Year holidays, another opportunity to return to a better state of inter-Korean affairs passed as well. This time last year, the two Koreas had just concluded a rare family visit that included around 100 elderly South Koreans. This year, no such luck would be forthcoming.
The year started off with the right statements and tone about wanting better relations; however, those possibilities are quickly diminishing. For February, it seems both sides were more focused on internal matters that affect inter-Korean relations rather than the two sides working together. There is a concern that South Korea’s efforts to engage North Korea may not be in-step with demands in the U.S. to place more pressure on North Korea. While February is a short month, the events suggest it will take a long time to get better inter-Korean relations.
North Korea continued to make progress in February, especially with testing weapon systems that present new challenges for U.S. and South Korean defense abilities. A big news item was North Korea launching anti-ship missiles. If North Korea integrates the anti-ship missile into its Navy, it also has the potential to utilize it with its air force and coastal defenses. North Korea also conducted military drills overseen by Kim Jong-un.
For South Korea, the biggest change is perhaps the announcement that the Park Geun-hye administration will soon have a new Minister of Unification. President Park reshuffled some of her Cabinet members, and in a somewhat surprising move, included a new Unification Minister in that arrangement. Hong Yong-pyo, who was serving as Park Geun-hye’s secretary for unification affairs and aide, was named to replace Ryoo Kihl-jae.
Both the Obama and Park Geun-hye administrations have been publicly trying to refute any notion that there is friction in the alliance’s approach to North Korea. Creating that tension is a primary tactic by North Korea, and with the lack of progress in inter-Korean relations, North Korea seems to be attempting to link demands in negotiations for improving inter-Korea ties with similar demands to bring about better U.S.-North Korea relations.
The main demand by North Korea in both relationships was for a suspension of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises. South Korea’s defense ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok said, “The annual drills to defend the Korean Peninsula have nothing to do with inter-Korean relations.” The U.S. also rejected North Korea’s proposal of suspending the military exercises in exchange for North Korea suspending nuclear testing.
However, there is a concern that differences in approaches to North Korea could manifest themselves in the coming months. The Obama administration currently looks unwilling to initiate a full-on engagement package for North Korea, and instead, more sanctions may be coming from the United States. The Park Geun-hye administration continues to debate keeping or dropping the May 24 sanctions without a North Korean apology or acknowledgement of the Cheonan attack. Plus, a change of unification ministers could signal a desire for a different direction in South Korea’s policy toward North Korea. Lastly, Park Geun-hye has been invited to a World War II ceremony in Russia that many reports suggest Kim Jong-un would also attend, setting up the possibility of a bilateral summit meeting both sides indicated was possible during their respective New Year’s announcements. U.S.-Russia ties are currently poor because of the situation with Ukraine. While the U.S. is hoping the international community can speak with a “unified voice” against Russia, the Obama administration has said that it will support Park Geun-hye’s efforts for improving inter-Korean relations. But with their presidencies winding down, there will likely be more temptation to develop better ties with North Korea.
February was not the month for those better relations to be rebuilt. For inter-Korean relations, the opportunity for connection around the Lunar New Year holiday has passed and soon U.S.-ROK military exercises will commence. The exercises, in addition to North Korea’s growing military capabilities and changes in the Park Geun-hye administration’s North Korea policy team, decreases room for compromise in the near term and lengthens the timeline for future positive interaction 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.
Photo from Sargent Killjoy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.