By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Early January is usually a time of optimism as goals are set and plans are made for a new year. Regrettably, there is often little progress on those efforts just a few weeks later. For inter-Korean relations, a similar process occurs. There is hope for better relations as both leaders usually have some statement about a desire for dialogue in the new year. Yet a few weeks later, difficulties and realities rise up and overtake that optimistic spirit, pulling inter-Korean dynamics into a long grind for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, this looks to be the case again in 2015. Proposals and ideas have been made by both sides, but the two Koreas still seem far from working together in a meaningful way.
South Korea tried to get ahead of the New Year’s Day announcement game by proposing high-level talks with North Korea on December 29. North Korea didn’t have much of a response until the new year when Kim Jong-un said he was willing to meet with Park Geun-hye if the conditions were right. The South Korean Unification Minister responded positively, noting that South Korea could talk to North Korea in any format. The proposals and dynamics have developed from there.
In various statements in its state media, North Korea has demanded South Korea cease conducting military exercises with the United States, stop the balloon launches with anti-Kim regime material by South Korea citizens, and lift the May 24 sanctions. As Robert Carlin pointed out, there could be various possibilities within these demands for a particular level meeting, such as a summit meeting between Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un versus a high-level official meeting or family reunions.
For South Korea, the Park Geun-hye administration has tried to deflect attention away from these demands and push its proposal of having talks with no preconditions. South Korean officials have said that all issues could be discussed at the talks, but the demands from North Korea shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the meeting. The Park administration tried to provide ideas for interaction between North and South Korea; they suggested family reunions in February around the Lunar New Year holiday, joint railroad testing, and joint events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the end of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula as opportunities for engagement.
While the statements and proposals seem positive, the inherent difficulties intertwined in them may hold the two sides back. As mentioned by Stephan Haggard, North Korea seems to be demanding a halt in U.S.-ROK military exercises as a condition for both returning to the Six Party Talks and for progress in inter-Korean relations. If so, this gives South Korea little flexibility on this issue and makes it difficult for other initiatives with North Korea to be accepted. Even so, in addition to presenting its ideas, South Korea also informed North Korea that the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises with the U.S. would take place in March. This gives the two Koreas little time before then to meet while exercises are not occurring. For South Korea, many of their proposals are one-time events. While one needs to start somewhere, the lack of a sustained project, especially with little or no financial gain, makes it easier for North Korea to refuse.
Despite the positive statements at the beginning of the year and various proposals being suggested, the two sides still seem far apart. The statements and proposals are good, it is just a matter of the two sides finding an avenue through the demands to an area of less uneasiness for talks. The two Koreas live with an uneasiness for each other every day, and it is starting to look like that feeling will remain for many days 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 Brett Farmiloe’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.