By Troy Stangarone
With the announcement of a deal shortly after midnight on August 25 the most recent inter-Korean crisis averted a military conflict on the Korean peninsula. Though the two sides reached a peaceful resolution, this is now the second significant inter-Korean crisis since Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2010. The agreement ending the crisis also represents the third major deal that Pyongyang has reached with South Korea or the United States under his leadership. With the crisis now coming to a close, what can we learn from the crises that Kim Jong-un has precipitated and the deals he’s made?
How the Current Crisis Developed
The most recent inter-Korean crisis began on August 4 when two South Korean soldiers lost their legs to North Korean mines while patrolling the DMZ. After the seemingly restrained response by South Korea of resuming loudspeaker broadcasts, tensions began to increase on August 20 after North Korea fired a missile towards one of South Korea’s loudspeakers and South Korea returned fire. After North Korea made an uncharacteristically specific threat by giving South Korea a 48 hour ultimatum to shut off the loudspeakers or face attack the two sides entered into negotiations shortly before the deadline expired.
As part of the agreement reached between the two sides, North Korea expressed regret for what had happened to the two soldiers and agreed to take steps to ensure that it would not happen again. In exchange, South Korea agreed to turn off propaganda loudspeakers it had reactivated after 11 years in response to the attack. North and South Korea also agreed to hold family reunions around the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chusok this year.
What Can We Learn From the Two Inter-Korean Crises
There have been two significant inter-Korean crises since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 and one thing is clear – under Kim Jong-un North Korea has upped the stakes in its provocations. The first crisis began shortly after Park Geun-hye’s inauguration as president in 2013. In that prior crisis Pyongyang engaged in nuclear and missile tests as before, but a study by KEI at the time also indicated that the use of militaristic rhetoric had increased under Kim Jong-un as compared to prior periods of inter-Korean crisis. Additionally, North Korea took the unusual step of withdrawing its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex for six months.
In the current crisis North Korea took a series of steps to raise tensions. As was previously mentioned, North Korea provided an unusually specific deadline for South Korea to shut of its loudspeakers or face attack. Kim Jong-un also ordered his front-line troops to a “semi-war state,” one of the highest levels of readiness for North Korea and one for which it had previously only been declared during the 1968 hijacking of the U.S.S. Pueblo and the 1993 nuclear crisis. North Korea also put 70 percent of its submarine fleet to sea, turned on air defense radars indicating that could detect incoming planes, and doubled its artillery along the DMZ. Most disconcerting were reports that North Korea had placed some artillery in the DMZ. If true, it would place Pyongyang in violation of the armistice agreement.
Interestingly, in this case, the North may have gotten ahead of its self with the specificity of its threat as the talks that ultimately brought the current crisis to a close were requested just before North Korea’s own deadline by Pyongyang, likely undermining any leverage it had in the discussions and perhaps, along with suspected DMZ violations, allowing South Korea to expand the deal to include family reunions during Chusok.
While the two crises are different in nature, in each case North Korea took steps previously unused to raise the stakes in its showdowns with South Korea. So far this has not lead to an escalation of a military conflict, but if North Korea continues this pattern in future crises the risk of miscalculation increases.
Lessons from North Korea’s Deals
For those looking to the lessons from the last crisis with North Korea or the Leap Day Agreement shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, difficulties could lie ahead. The Leap Day Agreement collapsed shortly after being reached as North Korea violated its commitment not to conduct missile tests.
The outcome of the 2013 crisis was only marginally better. As part of the resolution, North Korea agreed to work with the South to internationalize the Kaesong Industrial Complex and finally resolve issues related to the usage of cellar phones and the internet in Kaesong. After six months of talks the two sides reached a limited technical agreement on internet and cell phone usage, but it has yet to be implemented due to tensions between the two governments.
However, while agreements to improve the complex’s attractiveness to foreign investors have not been implanted, inter-Korean trade, which takes place primarily through Kaesong, has bounced back to a new high only a couple of years after the crisis.
What Comes Next?
Ultimately what may matter is how the resolution of the crisis is seen in Pyongyang among the elite. Kim Jong-un has faced down Park Geun-hye twice with little to show for his efforts. In the first crisis North Korea quickly caved once it was clear that Park Geun-hye was serious in her threat to close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
In the current crisis President Park remained firm throughout the crisis that North Korea should apologize and take steps to prevent similar occurrences in the future. The crisis has been resolved and while North Korea’s statement of regret may not be as much of an apology as one would have hoped, South Korea did get what it was primarily looking for plus the prospect of renewed family reunions. How will this play among the elites in North Korea and will it moderate or lead to more provocative behavior in the future?
For South Korea the family reunions will be a key to what comes next. Some 71,000 South Koreans are registered with the government and waiting to see their relatives in the North. The family reunions were the basis of Park Geun-hye’s policy of Trustpolitik when she came into office and as a result of North Korean provocations this policy has never really had a chance to be implemented. Will the North find a pretext as in the case of Kaesong to delay or cancel the reunions or will they be a one off? Or, could they be an opportunity to build a new relationship? History would unfortunately suggest that one of the former is more likely than the later.
Lastly, North Korea could turn its eye to the next South Korean presidential election. Pyongyang has traditionally tested new leaders, much as was the case with Park Geun-hye, and we should expect the same when South Korea’s next president is sworn into office in early 2018. Having now twice underestimated the resolve of Park Geun-hye Pyongyang will likely quickly want to assess if the new leadership in Seoul will be easier to rattle.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Ben Kucinski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.