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The Peninsula

October 2015: Building from Family Reunions While Tensions Remain in Inter-Korean Relations

Published November 3, 2015

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

Throughout the month of October, the possibility of one event and the expectation of two others were prominent in inter-Korean relations. With North Korea celebrating the anniversary of its Workers Party on October 10, there was also some initial concern that the event would be marked by a missile launch or nuclear test, which would damage the possibility of the family reunions scheduled for later in the month. No missile or nuclear test occurred, and both the parade for the anniversary and the family reunions took place. There were even some smaller civilian exchanges between the two Koreas that seemed to add to the overall positive atmosphere stemming from the outcomes of the family visits. However, the possibility of a test of North Korea’s long range missile capabilities or of a nuclear device is still real; moreover, the Park Geun-hye administration just put forth a budget request for an increase in military spending, claiming the need to strengthen South Korea’s ability to respond to North Korean provocations. Thus, while the two sides could build off the family visits and civilian exchanges that took place in October, an improvement in inter-Korean relations could still be a month-to-month determination.

While there was some initial speculation that North Korea would conduct a provocation on or around the October 10 Workers Party of Korea anniversary, satellite imagery and other aspects suggested a test wasn’t imminent. Although there was no test, the North Korean government did hold a large military parade to celebrate the anniversary, which revealed three significant points that could influence the future  of inter-Korean relations: the possibility of any new weapons capabilities from North Korea, such as a potentially new version of the KN-08 long-range missile, the road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile North Korea has been trying to develop; a thawing of North Korea-China tensions with Liu Yunshan, Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member, visiting and subsequent North Korea-China interactions; and another public speech by Kim Jong-un.

The other big event in October was the successful reunion of families separated by the Korean War. An agreement in September between the two Koreas cooled tensions that arose during a difficult August and brought about another opportunity to reunite divided families. The families met at the Mount Kumgang resort, but nothing with the North Korean government is ever easy.  South Korean reporters complained that their laptops and notebooks were thoroughly searched by North Korean authorities at the border crossing, slowing down their ability to cover the story. Also, the families from South Korea were encouraged to bring winter clothes, medicine, and money in U.S. dollars as gifts for their relatives in the North, but the gifts had to be sent ahead likely to be searched, and it was clear their families in North Korea would not be able to keep all the money the South Korean family members gave them.

Despite these drawbacks, the Park Geun-hye administration is trying to use the overall momentum and attention from the family visits to undertake other inter-Korean activities. During the week of the family visits, the South Korean government allowed a group of Catholic priests often associated with more progressive causes to visit North Korea to attend a mass on reunification organized by the North Korean government’s official organization for Catholics. A few days after the family reunions, civilian groups from South Korea travelled north to deliver fertilizer and other aid. Moreover, the South Korean government allowed South Korean labor groups to visit North Korea and participate in friendly soccer games with the North Korean government trade union group.  The Park administration is hoping these efforts will lead to inter-Korean government meetings. Kim Kwang-jin, South Korean National Security Adviser, suggested that the August agreement states that the two sides should have a government-to-government meeting after the family reunions, and that South Korea will push for talks with North Korea. In addition, President Park would likely want to see another round of family visits scheduled soon. A big part of the August agreement from the South Korean perspective was the language indicating the two sides agreed to multiple family reunions. The Park administration has pointed to multiple and continuous family reunions as an opportunity for trust-building between the two sides.

Even with some momentum from the family visits, those efforts can quickly be curtailed. There is still the possibility North Korea could test a missile or a nuclear weapon in the near future. In late October, there were reports suggesting that North Korea was digging a new tunnel at its nuclear test site. Also in late October, the Park administration announced plans to increase the defense budget in order to better respond to North Korean provocations. These moves don’t immediately kill the possibilities emerging from the family reunions, but both sides can easily use them as reasons to do so in the future.

The two Koreas were able to move slightly forward after the big events in October. The North Korean Workers Party anniversary on October 10 was not accompanied by a missile or nuclear test, which in turn allowed for the family reunions to take place as scheduled from October 20-26.  The two sides also had a few positive civilian exchanges as well. The Park administration is clearly looking to use the positive atmosphere from the family reunions and civilian exchanges to set up an inter-Korean governmental meeting and another round of family visits. The Park administration had pushed for continuous family reunions as an indicator of trust with the North Korean government, and having two successful reunions without cancellation could give her the opportunity to claim success and try other ideas as well. Yet, the looming potentiality of a North Korean provocation through a missile or nuclear test or the increase of the South Korea’s military budget could quickly wipe away any trust built in October.

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 represented here are his own.

Photo from Will De Freitas’ photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

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