By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Similar to previous months, inter-Korean relations remained tense, especially in the West Sea. South Korea claimed North Korea was renting out fishing grounds in the West Sea to Chinese fisherman, who then began to encroach beyond the Northern Limit Line (NLL) into South Korean territorial waters. Moreover, a South Korean military drill in the area around the five islands close to the NLL caused North Korea to protest the exercise in its state media. In a possible response to South Korea’s exercise, North Korea tested missiles of its own. Despite these strains, both sides were able to agree on holding smaller inter-Korean related meetings. The month of June provides South Korea, and its friends, examples and opportunities to encourage North Korea to regularize these more positive inter-Korean related meetings, while discouraging North Korea from engaging in provocative missile tests and actions.
Last month, warning shots were fired by South Korea’s navy at a North Korean boat crossing the NLL. North Korea claimed this boat was chasing out illegal Chinese fishermen. Chinese fishermen were again involved in inter-Korean tensions this month as South Korea accused North Korea of renting out their territorial waters to Chinese fishermen. Some of these Chinese fishermen crossed into South Korean territory and have made things difficult for the South Korean navy and coast guard.
Also near the NLL, South Korea conducted a live-fire drill around the five border islands with North Korea. North Korea claimed in the state media that South Korean shells were fired toward North Korea. South Korea denied these charges. However, and potentially more unnerving, North Korea tested three more missiles and announced these were “newly developed cutting-edge ultra-precision tactical guided missiles.” Kim Jong-un reportedly oversaw these launches himself. While these missiles were shot off the east coast, the timing suggests these tests were also a response to South Korea’s naval exercise.
A few days later, two more missiles were launched by North Korea off its east coast. This time, it’s possible they were short range ballistic Scud missiles. While all militaries do live-fire tests to maintain operational readiness, these June launches are likely part of the dangerous response signaling between the two Koreas and part of a pattern of consistent improvement in missile capabilities by North Korea.
These larger tensions may have overshadowed some of the smaller cooperation opportunities undertaken by the two Koreas this June. The most important of these was a joint committee meeting at Kaesong. The two sides hadn’t met since December 2013 in what are supposed to be quarterly meetings to discuss operations at Kaesong. Despite reports that no real progress was made, it is a positive step that the two sides met. It will be important to see if the next quarterly meeting takes place as scheduled.
The two Koreas also had a few other smaller profile meetings. Groups discussing deforestation and compiling a Korean language dictionary were allowed to travel to North Korea to meet their counterparts. In addition to those encounters, Buddhists from the two Koreas were able to celebrate at the Shingye Temple at Mount Kumgang the 70th anniversary of the death of Han Yong-un, a Buddhist monk, poet, and independence leader. Though small and less political, it is also a positive outcome that these meetings are taking place even though there are some tensions in the inter-Korean relationship. South Korea, along with its allies, friends, and neighbors, needs to encourage North Korea to allow these meetings and permit other similar inter-Korean related projects to occur regularly as well.
For the U.S. and South Korea specifically, the missiles tests are the most concerning. North Korea continues to improve its capabilities and missile weaponry. Han Min-koo, the South Korean defense minister nominee, told the National Assembly he would push for the early implementation of an indigenous missile defense system for South Korea. The U.S. has been encouraging South Korea to work together on a missile defense system. It appears the U.S. would like to develop a Terminal High-Altitude Defense Area (THAAD) missile defense system with South Korea. However, it seems there are still some disagreements between the U.S. and South Korea on what type of missile defense system would be best and over whether South Korea would develop its own without the United States. Coordination between the allies will be important no matter how the two sides decide to handle missile defense.
Thus, for a third straight month, tensions between the two Koreas occurred near the NLL, and North Korea tested its military capabilities in potentially provocative ways. Some smaller profile inter-Korean exchanges occurred in June, but it will likely take more encouragement, and some pressure, to increase these more positive opportunities while decreasing the deeply concerning military actions. However, as the history of inter-Korean relations suggests, these will be tough tasks for South Korea and its allies, friends, and neighbors to accomplish to get improvement in ties between the two Koreas.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s Armed Forces photostream on flickr Creative Commons.