By Casey Robinson
In January, the South Korean government extended its hand to the Kim regime by offering high-level talks to discuss North Korea’s possible participation at the Winter Olympics, to which the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded positively and ordered a reopening of the Panmunjom hotline. The international community was generally optimistic towards this development. Even President Trump, who has shown a willingness to use force to protect American interests, commented that inter-Korean talks are a good thing and even suggested his willingness to speak with Kim Jong-un himself.
Many acts of goodwill came from these high-level talks. North and South Korea agreed to participate as a unified team at the Winter Olympics under one flag with inter-Korean team practices in the North. In addition, the United States may have also displayed a sign of goodwill by decreasing funding for human rights and freedom of information programs in North Korea. Decreasing its budget towards these issues may show the North Korean government that the United States is potentially no longer be interested in undermining the Kim regime.
However, the Moon administration’s attempt at rapprochement with North Korea may only be good for the short-term, until the closing of the Winter Olympics. Without the incentive of sports diplomacy, all three governments may likely return to provocations as there is no sense of confidence in their respective adversary. Even though North Korea and South Korea discuss long-term goals such as family reunions and reducing military tensions, seven decades of war has created significant mistrust. Consequently, despite each government displaying a desire for a peaceful resolution, concerns over the intentions of the other party will remain an obstacle.
Indeed, South Korea and the United States still maintain certain attitudes that would be looked at as unfriendly by North Korea. For example, President Moon’s comment that high-level talks were due to President Trump’s pressure on North Korea and reaffirming his commitment to applying sanctions on North Korea greatly displeased the North Korean government. President Trump, on the other hand, continues to push towards further pressuring North Korea both diplomatically and economically. North Korea has seemingly decreased its provocative attitude as it has not tested a missile since November 28. However, there are still signs that suggest that the North may continue missile tests.
If provocations persist, the potential accomplishments that the PyeonChang Olympics might bring will be in vain. For this reason, it is important for all parties to take advantage of the sense of good feelings that the Olympics has created by continuing to display acts of goodwill. This can be accomplished by addressing the concerns that their respective adversary has expressed in the past. By doing so, the three parties would be able to alleviate tensions, create confidence and trust in their respective adversaries, and encourage collaboration towards a peaceful solution.
In showing goodwill, the three governments will start by showing low levels of goodwill. It is irrational to expect North Korea to return the U.S.S. Pueblo to the United States, which is a high level of goodwill, immediately as it has no guarantee that the United States is willing to abandon its reactionary policies against it. As trust and confidence improves, it is then appropriate for each government to show greater amounts of goodwill until peace is adequately established. The following are explanations for possible acts of goodwill.. The list first begins with low levels of goodwill that could be started immediately but gradually builds up to large levels of goodwill.
Gradually Decrease the Extensity of Military Exercises/Weapons Tests
North Korea, South Korea and the United States have been quite clear about their concerns towards military exercises and weapons tests, respectively. Accordingly, the biggest form of goodwill would be to abandon military exercises and weapons tests. North Korea may already be showing this kind of goodwill as it has stopped its weapons tests since November of last year. However, it is unrealistic to expect South Korea and the United States to cease military exercises. Doing so would jeopardize their military preparedness. Nevertheless, it would be possible for both South Korea and the United States to show a similar kind of goodwill by making exercises less provocative. For example, the United States may move military drills farther south and cease unnecessary military drills such as flying aircrafts close to the North Korean border.
Allow the Military to Continue Its Search for the Bodies of American Soldiers
From 1996 to 2005, North Korea allowed the United States to repatriate dead bodies of U.S. soldiers but there are still thousands of bodies of deceased U.S. soldiers in North Korea. Reinitiating this project would be meaningful to the U.S. government as the repatriation of deceased American soldiers has always been an important issue for the United States.
Refrain from Violent, Inflammatory, and Unproductive Rhetoric
It is typical for North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to exchange inflammatory comments, especially since the inauguration of Trump. North Korea will make threatening remarks such as vowing to turn South Korea into a “sea of flames” or insult the leadership of its adversaries such as calling President Trump a dotard. On the other hand, the United States will criticize North Korea by highlighting North Korea’s human rights abuses or when former President Obama commented that North Korea will continue to fall behind due to its isolationism. . These defamatory comments are frivolous. They only upset the other party.
Displaying Respect to the Adversary
Displaying more respect to the other party is another sign of goodwill. This is especially important to the North Korean government, as it is very proud and highly desires to receive respect from the international community. For this reason, addressing North Korea by its official name, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, may create goodwill with the North Korean government. Recently, North Korean counsellor, Ri Song Chol, expressed his government’s dismay when the United States refused to address North Korea by its official name at the United Nations in New York. Accordingly, both South Korea and the United States would display considerable goodwill to North Korea if it were to refer to the country by its official name in official documents, press releases, and official comments. North Korean media has begun referring (not completely) to South Korea as its official name, Republic of Korea, in recent days. Therefore, it would be appropriate for both South Korea and the United States to return the favor.
Offer American Prisoners More Access to Swedish Diplomats
Since 2009, American prisoners have often commented that they rarely met with diplomats from the Swedish embassy, which is typically viewed as a defiance of international law. Accordingly, by allowing the Swedish Embassy to meet with American prisoners regularly, North Korea would show goodwill towards the United States. It would not only show that North Koreans are now better meeting the needs of American prisoners but are also willing to abide by international norms, a possible sign that Pyongyang wants to become a contributing member in the international community.
Addressing War Atrocities
North Korea claims that the United States is responsible for the death of thousands of North Koreans due to heavy bombing and germ warfare during the Korean War. This has become a painful memory for North Korea. It has erected two museums, the Korean War Museum and the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, that remind the people of the United States’ war atrocities. However, while many agree that the United States is responsible for heavily bombing North Korea, there is a distinction between legitimate acts of war and war atrocities. The United States should not apologize for something it did not do. However, it could agree to participate in a Joint Investigation for war atrocities to begin to put issues of the war behind each country. This could be a joint investigation with China, Russia, and South Korea. Doing so would show that the United States is willing to address the issue.
Return the Pueblo to the United States
North Korea is proud of its treasure in the U.S.S. Pueblo, as it often boasts about its victory against the United States in the 1960s skirmish. North Korea returning the U.S.S. Pueblo to the United States would show significant goodwill to the United States. It would show that North Korea is willing to swallow some of its own pride to improve relations with the United States.
There are understandable concerns towards the sincerity of North Korea. For decades, North Korea has seemingly only acted in its own interests and has rarely done anything for free. In addition, Seoul is paying for the cost of North Korea’s attendance at the Olympics. The North Korean government is sacrificing very little and benefitting greatly. It is reasonable to believe, like many have pointed out, that North Korea has ulterior motives for participating in the Olympics.
However, North Korea’s conduct in recent weeks seems to suggest that the Kim regime may have become sincere. Robert Carlin and Joel Wit pointed out that the direct involvement of high level officials and their considerable respect towards President Moon Jae-in shows a rare level of respect towards South Korea, which may be a sign of considerable sincerity from the North Korean government.
Despite possible good intentions, North Korea, nevertheless, has much more to prove than South Korea and the United States. The months coming after the Olympics is a perfect opportunity to continue to show acts of goodwill to both South Korea and the United States as the Olympics has created a legitimate justification to engage at the official level. Not doing so will result in the international community continuing its pressure on the country. Likewise, South Korea and the United States should continue displaying acts of goodwill as North Korea needs assurances that both governments have good intentions towards its state. Without a sense of security, it is unlikely that the Kim regime would collaborate with South Korea and the United States.
If all three governments continue to show low levels of goodwill throughout 2018, the outlook for the future in 2019 may look less bleak. With modest confidence and security building through goodwill, all three governments, especially North Korea, may develop confidence in pursuing activities that have traditionally been uncharacteristic of it. For example, we may witness a North Korea that may choose diplomacy over weapons development to improve its economy. It may choose to engage other countries at international conferences such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Shangri La Dialogue.
The PyeongChang Olympics has brought a sense of good feelings, but these good feelings may quickly disappear after the Olympics. If all three parties are sincere in coming up with a peaceful solution, it is necessary for all three governments to continue to display acts of goodwill after the Olympics. Doing so would create a sense of trust and security, and improve cooperation towards a peaceful solution.
Casey Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate at Waseda University. His research interests include the DPRK, U.S. foreign policy, and international development. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.