By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Once again, a month of positive movements but also negative setbacks that keep near term inter-Korean relations uncertain. Many of the inter-Korean related activities that took place in May involved Kaesong in some way. Even with a few interactions, discouraging rhetoric still hurts the possibilities for future possibilities. Inter-Korean connections have been difficult, but the Park Geun-hye administration announced a few low-key policy changes it hoped would be beneficial for exchanges with North Korea when they do take place. The use of Kaesong, loud rhetoric, and small events have become the mediums for inter-Korean relations in recent years. This will continue to be unless connections can be built upon or a major breakthrough takes place, neither of which seems promising after the month of May.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) remains the largest and most regular contact point for inter-Korean relations. The two sides were able to come to an agreement over the months long wage dispute. In February, North Korea unilaterally announced that it wanted the South Korean companies in the KIC to pay their North Korean workers a 5.18% increase in salary to $74 a month, which was stated without South Korean government approval and a .18% above the previously agreed upon ceiling for wage increases. However, the two Koreas recently agreed to not increase the rate for the moment and to allow companies to provide back pay for any increase negotiated in the future. However, the South Korean government wants the negotiations to take place within the joint committee set up after the resumption of KIC operations following the suspension of activities in April 2013. The North Korean government has been very reluctant to work through this committee, so it is likely there is still some future fallout from this wage dispute.
Two additional inter-Korean events in May prominently involved Kaesong. Ban Ki-Moon, former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and current United Nations Secretary General announced on May 20th that North Korea had given him permission to visit Kaesong. Unfortunately, one day later, Ban’s office was informed that North Korea had withdrawn their permission and the trip was off.
An event that did occur that drew a lot of attention was the Women Cross DMZ march led by Gloria Steneim and other women peace activists. The group originally wanted to march from North Korea to the DMZ and through Panmunjom to South Korea. In a smart move, the South Korean government allowed the women to pass through the DMZ; however, the group was transported to Kaesong, and then bused through the same corridor that South Korean companies working in the KIC must travel. This required at least a little coordination with North Korea. The attention from the march and the absence of any legal ramifications will likely lead other groups to think about similar attempts, requiring the two Koreas to at least coordinate again on the procedures for dealing with the possibility of inter-Korean transit.
Despite that small coordination over the march, there was some louder rhetoric that could be damaging toward inter-Korean relations. North Korean state media again made vicious, sexist remarks against Park Geun-hye. In addition, North Korea’s state propaganda website, Urimzokkori, made a video bashing Park Geun-hye. In the video, criticism was launched against her upcoming June visit to the United States, stating she is purposely ignoring the 15th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 inter-Korean declaration and the summit between the former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and the former leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il.
Despite the slandering and the lack of a big success with North Korea, the Park Geun-hye government announced in May a few policy changes that it hoped would help when inter-Korean interactions do occur. The Park government stated it would allow more journalists to travel to North Korea to cover inter-Korean events. They also said more civilians would be permitted to undertake exchanges with North Korea. Lastly, the Park administration suggested it is exploring ways to have inter-Korean celebrations and events in recognition of the 70th anniversary of Korean independence and the end of World War II.
In a way, the activities in May represent the only three areas of current inter-Korean interactions. The two sides only have the Kaesong Industrial Complex, rhetoric back and forth about each other, and little slices of potential or actual exchanges. These three things could lead to better inter-Korea relations if there was positive and consistent forward progress in each areas. However, the month of May was another example of the positive interaction not being connected with any follow-up opportunities and the negative outcomes creating a heavy burden that makes it even more difficult for the two Koreas in the future.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo by Troy Stangarone, Korea Economic Institute of America.