The North-South agreementDuring the recent tensions on the peninsula, President Park made one crucial decision that clarified the underlying balance of power on the peninsula: she simply ignored Pyongyang’s ultimatum to turn off the loudspeakers. The Kim Jong-un regime had little choice but to plead for talks, which were held on terms that cut through North Korea’s past game-playing with respect to protocol. North Korea sent a representative of appropriate stature to negotiate an actual agreement. And Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo rightly sat across from Kim Yang-gon of the United Front Department as his diplomatic equal.
Much of the criticism that President Park has received stems from whether the North apologized or not. Hwang naturally tried to spin the agreement for his domestic audience. But any North Korean listening to the text of the agreement - read verbatim on the national news - had to see the obvious: that North Korea had expressed regret for the Aug. 4 mine incident, for which it was clearly responsible.
To outsiders, these fights over the language of the apology bear an unfortunate resemblance to the counterproductive history wars between Seoul and Tokyo. Instead of arguing about whether Abe’s recent speech reflected a politically correct view of history - which it sadly did not - Americans would much prefer discussions between our two allies of the concrete political, economic and social issues that will advance all of our common interests.
We should hold the North-South agreement to the same standard. The issue is not who won or the language of the apology, but how the tragic incident can be turned to some practical use.
Unfortunately, it is not obvious how that should be done. Park has clearly not engaged North Korea to the same extent as the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations did. But like them, her efforts at Trustpolitik have focused as much on what South Korea will give the North - humanitarian assistance, aid, investment projects - as what the North can offer in return.
Let’s be honest: family reunions are a starting point but are simply not good enough. Need we reiterate how utterly shameful it is that the North Koreans manipulate this issue in the first place?
The agenda needs to be wider and should stand on three pillars: security, economics and social exchange. It is time to restart North-South military-to-military talks that include a discussion of the disposition of North Korea’s conventional military forces. These talks can be used to explain clearly the joint U.S.-South Korean deterrence posture, which appeared to play an important role in actually forcing a resolution to the crisis. As Kim Dae-jung argued forcefully, the first premise of any engagement strategy has to be “no provocations.” Modifying joint exercises could be on the table, but not for free; North Korea needs to show restraint in key areas like its missile program.
On the economic front, if humanitarian aid is needed, then it should be given. But the South needs to stop thinking in terms of subsidizing the North and engage in activities on a commercial basis. Lifting the May 24 sanctions could have this effect, but only with a clear statement of principles that separates economics and politics. If North Korea wants trade and investment with the South, it has to make it profitable. If firms want to engage with North Korea, they should be on their own. If they want risk insurance, they should buy it. It is up to Pyongyang to make the business environment attractive.
Finally, we should not overlook the power of social contact in the long game with the North. Activating the NGO community has many benefits and few costs. Again, the model has been for the government to subsidize NGO activity through the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund. But NGOs should also be on their own, free to engage but on the basis of funds they raise on their own. Professional associations should not only engage with the North, sharing knowledge, but should invite their counterparts to the South to see the gains from taking a different path. The influence of such exchanges are subtle and long-term but important.
And what if North Korea is uninterested in this agenda? Leverage comes from the ability to walk away. All can agree that the division of the peninsula is a national tragedy. But solving the North Korea problem is not ultimately in the hands of the South; it is in the hands of the leadership and people of North Korea. South Korea has a host of challenges that are equally if not more important than unification, ranging from youth unemployment and building an innovative society to working out its complex relationship with China. The Kim dynasty gains when the South is preoccupied with the North. President Park should do what she can, but no more.
*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.
by Stephan Haggard