By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After the New Year’s announcements by Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un, there is a lot of anticipation and analysis for the year ahead in inter-Korean relations. However, many of the issues that plagued the two sides in 2014 remain as hurdles for 2015. Looking back could give insights to help improve the possibility for a better year between the two Koreas in 2015.
While excitement may have increased about the possibility of high-level meetings and the improvement of relations between North and South Korea, the feeling may be short-lived as more balloons with anti-North Korean regime leaflets have been launched into North Korea by South Koreans along the border. The balloon launches were North Korea’s stated reason for not moving forward with the high-level meeting agreed upon after the Incheon Asian Games visit by North Korean officials Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-Hae, and Kim Yang-gon. North Korea shot at the balloons last year, prompting South Korea to return fire. North Korea’s responses to the balloons launches, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report, and The Interview movie suggest an increased sensitivity to actions that criticize or shows Kim Jong-un and the regime in a negative manner; thus, actions like the balloon launches could create more tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The tensions last year were not only from the balloons launches. The two Koreas had a stretch of at least three straight months in 2014 where there were live-fire exchanges in the West Sea or along the Northern Limit Line. The two sides even shot at each other cross the DMZ, a few miles from Panmunjom. North Korea also had numerous artillery firings and missile launches. These military tensions often occur around joint and combined military exercises, and North Korea’s New Year’s proposal suggests the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises could create a better environment for North Korea to talk with South Korea. The handling of relations during military exercises will again be crucial in 2015.
An interesting aspect of the contentious relationship between the two Koreas may be the Park Geun-hye administration’s forthright efforts to prepare for unification. These efforts attempt to address two key issues: 1.) a low receptivity, desire, and awareness of unification in South Korea, especially with the younger generation, and 2.) actual preparation for a transition and eventual unification that will be extremely difficult in the short-to-medium term. These are two necessary and important aspects for South Korean society that Pak Geun-hye is rightly undertaking. The Park administration’s educational push on unification topics, humanitarian aid to North Korea, establishment of a Presidential Committee on Unification Preparation, and Park Geun-hye’s speech in Dresden, Germany were all part of these efforts. However, North Korea feels much of this is preparation for unification by absorption. North Korea condemned President Park’ speech in Dresden and hasn’t had kind words about her Presidential unification committee.
Despite these tensions, the two Koreas were able to get some smaller meetings and movements in 2014. The two sides were able to have family reunions in February, although it was a delay from the previous year and South Korea was unable to get them regularly scheduled. The Park administration allowed members of the Hyundai family to visit North Korea. On Kaesong, North and South Korea were able to complete a meeting of the joint committee established after the reopening to help run the Kaesong Industrial Complex and subsequent lower-level staff meetings for this committee were held; now they just need to get the joint committee to meet quarterly as agreed upon. South Korea also provided humanitarian aid to North Korea. However, the biggest success in 2014, albeit short-lived, was the visit by North Korean leaders Hwang-Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-Hae, and Kim Yang-gon at the end of the Asian Games. This high-level meeting, and Kim Jong-un’s statements about the importance of the Games and inter-Korean relations, demonstrated this type of interaction could take place, although the two sides were unable to replicate it again a few weeks later.
This inability to turn these small success into larger ones, along with the tensions that still remain, will linger in inter-Korean relations for 2015. Currently, as the two sides try to find common ground for the meetings they both stated they were willing to have, the inability to turn these smaller meetings into more important outcomes is a factor that is delaying progress. The Park Geun-hye administration is trying an incremental approach with North Korea in order to build trust and gain confidence with the interaction. North Korea on the other hand appears to be looking for a bigger package up-front, fearing returns promised in the future will never come. Thus, even if something does percolate from the New Year’s statement, both Koreas could still be unable to make the connections and build the momentum each feels is necessary for an improvement in relations.
Moreover, tensions between the two Koreas will rematerialize and potentially grow again. The balloon launches have already begun, and the Park Geun-hye administration has remained, in general, on the side of free speech and allowing these launches to occur. Reducing, postponing, or canceling military exercises, especially with the United States also seems very unlikely. With the U.S. attempting to respond to the cyber attack on Sony Pictures and the Obama administration identifying North Korea as the culprit, there may be little room maneuver even if the Obama and Park administrations thought it advisable. Consequently, once the military exercises start up again, the North Korean leadership could easily claim that the atmosphere is not right and scuttle any movement on inter-Korean relations.
The prospects for better inter-Korean relations in the new year have once again started off with the two Koreas expressing a desire for more interactions. Now the coordination and negotiation begin over terms and frameworks for those initial opportunities. However, the tensions and experiences from 2014 remain as key issues holding back progress. Frameworks are there for inter-Korean interaction, but the two Koreas still have a lot to overcome to make 2015 a good year for 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 Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.