By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After the month of August featured shooting, shouting, and a negotiated joint statement, September mainly focused on laying the groundwork necessary to implement the August 25 agreement or to scuttle it. The two Koreas were able to agree on family visits scheduled for October 20-26. However, the last half of September saw both sides probing to figure out how willing the other was to stick with the agreement. Reports of a possible missile test disguised as a satellite launch by North Korea would force South Korea to decide whether a launch would require a temporary suspension of the already scheduled family visits. Thus, inter-Korean relations throughout September may not have reverted back to the contentiousness seen prior to the August joint statement, but the dynamics between the two Koreas in September were still antagonistic enough that both sides could easily backslide.
Apart from reducing tensions along the DMZ, the August joint statement also called for inter-Korean family reunions. The two Koreas were able to have meetings in September and agreed upon having the family reunions from October 20 to October 26 at the Mount Kumgang resort. Mount Kumgang hosted the previous family visits meeting under Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un. The Park administration has pushed for family reunions on a consistent basis and considers them an important avenue for building trust between the two Koreas.
However, with North Korea’s actions and statements, the family reunions in October are far from certain. The North Korean government warned South Korea not to gloat about the joint statement, insisting that it did not represent an apology regarding the land mine blasts that severely injured two South Korean soldiers.
Moreover, the North Korean government stated that it has restarted its nuclear facility and is preparing to launch another satellite. The initial thinking was that North Korea might time a nuclear test or a missile test masked as a satellite launch around October 10, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea. Recent imagery suggests that North Korea might not be able to launch by October 10; however, North Korean scientists told CNN that they do not have to launch on a particular holiday or anniversary.
Is it possible that North Korea is trying to sabotage the family reunions before they occur? North Korea could also be trying to force the Park Geun-hye administration into making a final decision whether or not to proceed with the family visits despite possible provocations from North Korea. Would Park Geun-hye allow the family reunions to happen if North Korea tested a missile?
September turned out to be one of the transition periods in inter-Korean relations during which the two sides tried to simply make it through the month in order to reach an opportunity for better engagement. Tough rhetoric from North Korea could potentially increase the possibility of a nuclear or missile provocation, and puts the onus on the Park Geun-hye administration to decide what, if anything, would force them to cancel the family reunions which they worked so hard to achieve. While the difficult interactions in September may not have made things worse, improving inter-Korean relations will remain difficult in the months ahead.
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 Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.