01.06.2013 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Korean Peninsula — is the tension over or is it just a reprieve?

5271Nine ballistic missiles of various ranges, including the latest Musudan, were removed from the DPRK’s eastern coast. They had been deployed there in early April in response to a large-scale military exercise in South Korea that included the armed forces of the United States.

The withdrawal of the North Korean missiles to their original positions put a decisive end to the latest flare-up on the Korean peninsula. People have stopped talking about what almost happened, regardless of what was behind the crisis in April (“North Korean nuclear blackmail,” provocative attempts to prevent a likely invasion from the South, or something else altogether). The pendulum has begun swinging in the opposite direction, and everyone involved in the region’s politics is showing an inclination towards rapprochement.

South Korea is trying to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table to decide what happens with the joint Kaesong industrial complex. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye offered to negotiate the removal of materials and finished products from the Kaesong joint industrial zone in the DPRK, which has been shut down since early April because of the conflict between the two countries. The Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with the North, would have the job of organizing a dialogue of that type. As she made that proposal at the conclusion of a government session, Park once again expressed regret that Pyongyang had closed the Kaesong zone, the only symbol of cooperation between the two Korean states.

And although the North Koreans periodically call such proposals by Seoul “cunning tricks,” the negotiations are being held, although they are slow-moving. They are like glowing coals, but under the right conditions they can flame up as before. On May 28, 2013, for example, the DPRK allowed South Korean businessmen into Kaesong to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the joint declaration of bilateral cooperation that was signed on June 15, 2000. The DPRK has also expressed willingness to begin negotiating the complex’s full return to operation after the South Korean businessmen’s visit.

The main thing to remember is that the Kaesong complex is not the only arrow in North Korea’s quiver, and if would be a mistake to consider it the only or even the main source of foreign currency for North Korea. I will cite just one example. North Korea’s revenues from the Kaesong complex amount to $80 million, whereas the income from North Korean migrant workers in the Russian Federation, who nowadays are doing less wood chopping and more work in the construction business, displacing Tajiks and Moldovans in the Far East, comes to $100 million. The important issue lies elsewhere — Park Geun-Hye is trying to use the talks on Kaesong to restore some level of the trust between the two countries that was lost during Lee Myung-bak’s time in office. The important thing to remember is that the process will be a long one. Both sides have experienced setbacks and are shy about re-engaging. They are testing each other and checking each other’s sincerity. Still, it is always better to negotiate than not.

Then if the dialogue with the North resumes, the South Korean government intends to offer various proposals for strengthening trust on the Korean peninsula, including humanitarian aid. Chu Gol-hee, chief of the presidential administration’s office on foreign policy and defense, said, “We intend to offer the DPRK several proposals if the dialogue resumes.” Chu is responsible for foreign policy and national security. He stressed that Seoul’s policy is primarily aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear problem: “By progress on this issue we mean the North would give up its nuclear arsenal.”

Japan welcomed the DPRK’s willingness to resume the dialogue. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “It is a positive development that North Korea halts provocative acts and shows signs of accepting dialogue.” At the same time, Suga stressed that Japan is still waiting for Pyongyang to take “concrete steps” toward denuclearization.

In a parallel step, Japan’s presidential advisor for strategy, Isao Iijima, visited the DPRK. He spoke with senior North Korean government officials, including Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of this Supreme People’s Assembly, who is considered the number two person in the DPRK hierarchy, and with the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea secretary, Kim Yong Il.

The content of their consultations was not released. However, Isao Iijima served as secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and accompanied him on his visit to Pyongyang when Koizumi met with former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. Many experts believe that North Korea was willing at the time to accept Japanese investments and undertake extensive economic transformations (the state events of 2002 were intended to support that). To demonstrate his sincerity, Kim Jong-Il even admitted that Japanese citizens had been abducted, but the second round of the nuclear crisis that had just begun interrupted the initiative.

There was no official announcement from Tokyo about Iijimi’s visit to the DPRK or the meetings. Nevertheless, some analysts believe that the main topic of discussion at the meeting had to do with the Japanese who had been abducted in the 1970-1980 time period by North Korean intelligence, while others thought they talked about restoring contacts between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations.

The unexpected trip by the Japanese prime minister’s advisor to Pyongyang surprised South Korea and the United States. Seoul called it a “wasted” trip because it was not coordinated with Tokyo’s main partners. Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea, who had just arrived in Tokyo on a working visit, also said that Washington is hoping Japan will brief it on the results of Iijima’s visit

In that context, general remarks by Japanese leaders made during and after the visit are of interest., On the one hand, Yoshihide Suga officially said that the Japanese government is considering restarting the dialogue with the DPRK. “We are seeking various opportunities, and, naturally, that option is also being considered.” The Kyodo News agency cited government sources in reporting that Japan is looking seriously at possibly resuming official negotiations with the DPRK. Even Shinzo Abe, who did not comment on the visit, has not ruled out a possible meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if it leads to a breakthrough in the currently hostile relations between the two countries: “If a summit meeting is deemed as an important means in considering ways to resolve the abduction issue, we must take it into consideration as a matter of course in negotiating with them,”

On the other hand, the “abduction issue” is still a stumbling block. For example, Keiji Furuya, Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue, expressed hope that North Korea would make the right decision on the issue by repatriating all Japanese citizens and facilitating the restoration of relations between the two countries. He said Japan would refrain from providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK until the abduction issue is completely resolved. Shinzo Abe also stressed that such important decisions as holding a summit meeting could not be made until the problem is resolved. Japan’s current prime minister considers the resolution of this problem one of his most important diplomatic goals.

Still, official Tokyo is at least not opposed to contacts or, as a minimum, to expressing the desire to establish them. That can be seen as a signal that Japan is abandoning the politics of confrontation.

Some elements of a course change are also evident in US policy. First of all, the US government made expanding the dialogue with North Korea one of its strategic objectives for 2014. The US State Department sent Congress a report to that effect. That document in part discusses the need to begin negotiations with the North to discuss in detail possible measures for denuclearizing North Korea. In addition, if the dialogue is resumed, the United States plans to more broadly address the issue of improving Pyongyang’s position on the world stage.

Second, the Americans are convinced that they reacted very mildly to Pyongyang’s launch of six short range missiles over a three-day period. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the North Korean missile launches could be construed as provocative, but they were essentially short range missiles, and their launch did not violate international obligations. A recent statement by the Defense Department noted that North Korea has gradually reduced its provocative acts and bellicose rhetoric and expressed hope that the trend would continue.

Meanwhile, North Korea dutifully criticized the training launch of a Minuteman III ICBM by the United States on May 22, 2013. The North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun called the launch a “provocation” and a “missile threat” to the North’s security. “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is forcing our country to take all necessary measures to increase our defensive forces,” it said. “We are not concealing the fact that we are developing ballistic missiles that will help us achieve a decisive victory in a full-scale war with the United States.”

The DPRK has also spoken of its willingness to resume the six-party talks. During a meeting in Beijing with Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 24, 2013, Vice Admiral Choe Ryong-hae, chief of the Main Political Directorate of the North Korean People’s Army, said that Pyongyang is prepared to resume the dialogue with all interested parties — and that includes returning to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem. We know nothing more about what the talks would cover, but South Korean representatives believe the main thing is to restore contacts between the South and the North.

It would seem that we can exhale and begin to relax, but we need to remain vigilant for a number of reasons.

First of all, we can posit several hypotheses for the change of course. Pyongyang can be said to have won the war of nerves.

The United States may have decided that the strategy of pressure is counterproductive, and a military solution for the conflict would be too costly (I have even heard that Washington is convinced North Korea has something to back up its threats of striking American territory, and the probability is high enough to try and avoid getting into a military conflict).

The West may already have decided on the next target it wants to make an example of — not North Korea, but rather Iran, which does not yet process nuclear weapons. It is more open to American political technologies and would present a structural threat if a protégé of the clerics wins the election. If so, its positions in the Far East would need to be consolidated in order to avoid being distracted by the DPRK and minimize the likelihood of taking on two problems at once.

Also, Russia’s and China’s actions may have brought Washington and Seoul around to the understanding that they almost ended up in a situation where the tail was wagging the dog. And they changed their attitude toward those who were claiming that the North Korean regime was about to collapse and only needed a push.

I might also point out that no actual steps towards reconciliation have yet been taken. It is being discussed as a possibility, provided the DPRK makes some concessions.

Second, there are at least two sticking points that could cause another flare-up during the summer and fall. The first is the upcoming 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War on July 27, 2013. Both sides believe they won and clearly will celebrate the date with enough fanfare to upset the party on the other side of the 38th parallel. The second event is the “scheduled” South Korean exercise Ulchi Freedom-Guardian, which will take place on at least as great a scale as the military exercise that sparked the crisis in April — and this exercise may even be larger. That is because a large number of civilians will also be taking part, and the total number of participants will approach 500,000. It is logical that the North would view a military buildup on this scale with alarm and as potential preparations for an invasion.

Finally, we should remember that both the Northerners and the Southerners are difficult negotiating partners who often look upon courtesy as concession, concession as weakness, and weakness as an opportunity to take advantage. Therefore, it is important that Pyongyang not get carried away by success, and that it holds the course toward balanced cooperation and demonstrates a constructive approach, a willingness to engage in dialogue, and an understanding of their partner, where it does not conflict with the DPRK’s national interests.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.

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