By Nicholas Hamisevicz
February was another difficult month for inter-Korean relations. After a nuclear weapons test in January, North Korea then conducted a satellite launch that also served as a ballistic missile test. The Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in response, leaving no continuous projects or connections left for inter-Korean cooperation. After punishments through sanctions by individual countries and by the international community through the United Nations Security Council resolution, South Korea will have to figure out how it will engage North Korea, if at all. The two Koreas have made it through troublesome times at the beginning of the year before, but with more factors being added to the mix each month, this period during the first quarter of 2016 could be the toughest challenge yet for the Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un.
North Korea launched a rocket carrying a satellite that appears to have made it into orbit on February 7. Once again, this launch was viewed as attempt to test ballistic missile technology. Three days later, the Park Geun-hye administration announced that it was suspending operations of the KIC because North Korea was using the funds to support its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
As KEI’s Troy Stangarone elucidated, it doesn’t look likely that the Park Geun-hye administration will attempt to reopen Kaesong. Increasing the grimness of the outlook is the fact that North Korea seemed unimpressed by any inter-Korean related cooperation project put forward by the Park administration. North Korea barely agreed to family reunions. It has only been through many negotiations and tension relieving measures that the two Koreas have had family reunions twice under Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un. The reopening of tours from South Korea to Mount Kumgang in North Korea had no chance, as South Korea wants security guarantees for its citizens and apology by North Korea over the death of a South Korean who was killed during a visit. North Korea desires to have South Korea re-pay for everything and re-start the tours immediately. Park Geun-hye’s peace park idea along the DMZ doesn’t appear to have been seriously considered by North Korea either. The cooperation effort between South Korea and Russia to ship Russian coal through North Korea’s Rajin port was slow and has currently been suspended as well by South Korea.
Thus, since there is currently no inter-Korean cooperation projects in operation, conceivably any idea could be brought forward as an option. However, it is also likely that whatever ideas is put forward by South Korea, either by Park Geun-hye or her successor, North Korea’s price for agreeing to the arrangement will be much higher to make up for lost revenue and to get back at South Korea.
In order to get to a point where the two Koreas can even consider negotiating over a new inter-Korean cooperation project, they must get through these first five months, and likely, a much longer stretch of time as well. Even with the stakes seemingly much higher now without any inter-Korean cooperation project, the two Koreas under Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un have made it through this complicated part of the year before. In 2013, North Korea denied access to Kaesong and operations had ceased for five long months. Last year, North Korea demanded higher wages for the workers at Kaesong, setting off more intense negotiations. Moreover, the arrest of a South Korean student by North Korea made things difficult for inter-Korean relations.
Although Kaesong continued in these instances, the two Koreas can make it through the next few months. There has already been tough talk and provocative moves of small rocket fires and cyber attacks by North Korea. However, both sides have the ability to manage the tensions in a way that can get the countries to late May without a detrimental conflict. By then, North and South Korea could be in a more positive environment to address the possibility of some constructive interaction or at the very least a stalemated atmosphere of no engagement, positive or negative.
It has been normal for contentious rhetoric and little contact to occur between the two Koreas during the first quarter of the year. However, after the first two months of 2016, the new normal now appears to be no substantive contact between North and South Korea for the last year and a half of the Park Geun-hye administration. Despite making it through the first few months of the year in the past, both Koreas will have to work harder than before to reduce the possibilities of the lack of contact being accompanied by provocative actions throughout the rest of the year.
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 here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Chris Marchant’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.