Actions, not rhetoricThe two Koreas, through the Aug. 24 agreement, created a breakthrough in the deadlocked inter-Korean relations. Over the past years, inter-Korean relations faced repeated setbacks. The turning point was the latest choice between an armed clash or dialogue. Fortunately, the two Koreas chose the latter.
The negotiation took place over 43 hours in which the two Koreas massed all physical assets, including their military capabilities. With the agreement, the confrontation, which could have expanded to a local battle or a war, ended and a dialogue started. The latest negotiation has a few differences from the talks in the past.
First, it was the most urgent negotiation since the armistice because the two Koreas both mobilized their military powers. It was brinkmanship of choosing between a war and a dialogue. The negotiations narrowly avoided a war, and instead opened a door for more dialogues. They reached a consensus that they must avoid a clash that will bring about enormous damage to both sides.
Second, the inter-Korean agreement clearly stated the subject behind the provocation and its apology. Until now, the North had made ambiguous expressions of regret. The Jan. 21 incident in 1968 was described as a “sorry incident” while the North expressed deep regret over the infiltration of a submarine in Gangneung in 1996. In 2002, the North announced regret over the second Yeonpyeong sea skirmish, but all of them failed to clearly state who was making the apology.
But for the latest land mine provocation, the agreement clearly stated who was making the apology and included the measure to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident in the joint press statement. With this, the two Koreas created a system through which they could end the vicious cycle of provocations.
Third, South Koreans have a new sense of security and unity, and this provided a foundation for Seoul to maintain its principles and lead the negotiation. Those in their 20s and 30s, known as the “new security generation,” demonstrated their strong will to forcefully counter the North. Some even postponed their military discharges to respond to the North’s provocations. That improved the South Korean government’s negotiation power. The ruling and opposition parties also urged the government in a united voice to act sternly toward the North’s provocation. This also gave the government more power.
Fourth, the negotiation was an opportunity to learn the Kim Jong-un regime’s negotiation style and test Kim’s leadership capabilities. During the process of solidifying his grip of power, Kim executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek and powerful military official Hyon Yong-chol. After witnessing his politics of fear, we had to wait and see Kim’s policy on South Korea.
Through this negotiation, Kim demonstrated a negotiation style no different from his late father and late grandfather, and the South was able to confirm that the North can make the “reasonable” choice of avoiding an unreasonable confrontation. The latest provocations and subsequent negotiations were a classic example of the North’s brinkmanship.
It will be difficult for the North to conduct another nuclear test or fire another long-range rocket because it will bring about additional sanctions. The North, therefore, engaged in brinkmanship by creating a crisis with low-level provocations like the land mine blasts and artillery fire, and then demanding the South to choose between war and a dialogue. In the end, the North turned the situation around to a dialogue. It was yet another reenactment of the North’s traditional negotiation tactic of “changing the situation through shock therapy.”
Although some are dissatisfied with the Aug. 24 agreement, it clearly changed the situation and created an opportunity to restore inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government’s zero-tolerance policy for provocation, and its assertion that the border broadcasts will stop only after the North admits, apologizes and promises to never plant land mines on, or fire artillery across, the border managed to win the North’s expression of “regret.”
It was the first time that the North’s “regret” - a diplomatic term for an apology - was stipulated in an inter-Korean agreement. By obtaining the North’s “apology” for the land mine provocation and artillery firing, the South Korean government managed to calm the public’s anger that the South had failed to properly respond to the North’s repeated provocations. It also ended the cycle of provocation, crisis, compromise, compensation and another provocation.
When dialogues and negotiations, including government-level talks, separated family reunions and civilian exchanges are resumed as stated by the agreement stated, the inter-Korean relations that have been severed over the past seven years will be restored and a new opportunity can be created for the development of ties between the two Koreas.
Due to the frozen inter-Korean ties, the Park Geun-hye administration’s “Korean Peninsula trust process” failed to function until now. During the recent talks between the two Koreas, top officials in security and unification affairs had lengthy and candid talks. The leaders of the two Koreas also watched the talks in real-time. It was a good opportunity to directly confirm what each other wants and what the causes of distrust and misunderstanding were. The two Koreas started resolving the long-held distrust and building trust.
Some complained that the North’s expression of regret is too weak and the agreement failed to include the North’s promise to not repeat the provocation. And yet, a fancy agreement has no use if it is not implemented. The most important thing is actually implementing an agreement.
Until now, the two Koreas made many agreements, but most of them are dead. The next challenge is ending the cycle of agreeing to an agreement and failing to implement it.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
*The author is a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.
by Koh Yu-hwan