North Korea’s ‘peace offensive’: How should South Korea respond?

Despite hostile suspicions, greater effort must be made to thaw relations between the two countries.

Communication channels with North Korea should involve more than Dennis Rodman [Reuters]

For the second year in a row, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made mention of improving inter-Korean relations in his New Year’s Address. Pyongyang followed by proposing a three-pronged approach to easing tense inter-Korean relations.

The document released by the North’s National Defence Commission (NDC) called for both Koreas to halt all mutual criticism and slander starting from the Lunar New Year on January 30. Additionally, the proposal called for halting all provocative military acts between the two sides and suggested that authorities in Seoul scrap the scheduled US-South Korea joint military exercises that take place annually between February and April. Contrary to past rhetoric, the NDC highlighted how the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is a common goal, and suggested that practical measures be taken to avert a nuclear military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul responded coldly to the proposal, prompting the NDC to publish an open letter to the people of South Korea, containing the most conciliatory rhetoric to come out of the North in recent times. The letter reiterated earlier proposals, calling on concerted efforts by the two sides to cool relations, end military hostilities, and reenergise cooperation and economic exchange. As a sign of good will, Pyongyang also agreed to resume holding reunions of families and relatives separated by the Korean War, a move that was quickly welcomed by the South.

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Pyongyang’s overtures can easily be written off as part of a cycle that begins with conciliatory rhetoric and ends in threats and provocation, but in order to move past the decades-long adversarial status quo, a greater degree of pragmatism, problem solving and engagement is needed. The legitimate grievances of both sides must be taken into account in such a process, as well as a willingness to put preconditions and moralising judgements aside to more effectively and straightforwardly engage in dialogue.  

Counterproductive expectation

The incumbent South Korean administration has shown that it is not willing to adopt a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang as seen during the administrations of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who were both able to ease relations considerably.

Despite President Park Geun-hye’s campaign promises of stabilising relations with Pyongyang, her administration appears to be unwilling to patiently work on promoting exchange and cooperation with the North. Park’s policies have not wavered much from the conservative policies of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who oversaw a period of volatile inter-Korean ties.

Park speaks of creating an atmosphere for peaceful reunification in highly vague terms, and has openly characterised North Korean society as one that is suffering under the yoke of a tyrant. No one denies the North’s repressive policies, however Park’s official description implies that the leadership in Pyongyang cannot be seen as an equal negotiating partner, but rather as a regime that can only be removed, creating a climate that is counter-productive to engagement.

The Park administration’s view is that the North must state its commitment to complete denuclearisation as a precondition for any dialogue; for Pyongyang, this is a non-starter because it finds such preconditions humiliating and against its national security interests.

Pyongyang’s main point of contention is with the annual military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea, which are some of the world’s largest drills that focus on amphibious landing operations with extensive maritime, air and ground manoeuvres. North Korea finds these exercises to be highly provocative, especially the use of nuclear capable B-52 strategic bombers in last year’s exercises.

These drills place strain on Pyongyang, which must also mobilise forces to monitor and react to the other side’s movements during a time when the leadership is channelling scarce resources into improving the economy. Domestic obligations also necessitate that the North protest and oppose the exercises both to appease hardliners and to strengthen the siege-mentality, further perpetuating a familiar cycle. Seoul’s security policies oblige Pyongyang to take an aggressive posture, while the South’s failure to acknowledge the North’s reconciliatory gestures prevents any tangible transformation of inter-Korean relations.   

Economic engagement

Rather than offering hasty rejections of Pyongyang’s proposals or dismissing them as a novelty, South Korean authorities should respond with greater patience and offer realistic counter-proposals that can allow dialogue to develop, allowing each side to understand the other’s priorities.

Rolling back the scathing mutual slander that the North proposed isn’t an outlandish idea, and while it would be very unlikely for Seoul to unilaterally cancel its military drills with the US, discussing measures to scale down these exercises would be a reasonable thing to do.

Part of the reason why the North may be offering conciliatory gestures, is to boost foreign investment and improve its economy.

In its open letter, Pyongyang offered an explanation of its nuclear programme as a deterrent against the US nuclear umbrella, and it claims to seek denuclearisation in the long-term. Other accounts by US diplomats who met with senior North Korean officials last year suggest that Pyongyang would be willing to consider a phased approach to denuclearisation in exchange for a peace treaty with the US and South Korea and the lifting of economic sanctions. Rejecting dialogue with North Korea, because it refuses to adhere to preconditions that it must disarm outright, ensures that its nuclear programme will remain off the negotiating table, while its indigenous long-range missile technology grows more sophisticated.

The leadership in Pyongyang is aiming to boost its economic output and raise living standards, and it has placed increased emphasis on economic development, culminating in reforms of the agricultural sector that involve reducing collective farm sizes and allowing farmers to hold on to output beyond their production quotas.

High level engagement

Pyongyang is also aware of the negative perception created by the unilateral closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex last year in protest over the South’s military exercises, and in an attempt to attractive foreign investment, there are indications that the North is making greater efforts to ease market access to its special economic zones, which have so far been marred with inefficiency. Attempts are also being made to decentralise economic decision-making in provinces and enterprises, including measures to allow enterprise managers to retain a surplus and form joint ventures with registered investors.

Part of the reason why the North may be offering conciliatory gestures, is to boost foreign investment and improve its economy. Even if that is the case, it would be preferable to the volatile and less predictable status quo. The North’s handling of its foreign policy under Kim Jong-un and the recent public purge of Jang Song-thaek have invariably reduced its credibility, but this does not mean that the outside world should abandon constructive engagement that can be pursued in a practical framework.

Kim Jong-un has succeeded in consolidating his power, and what is most needed now is high-level engagement directly with the North Korean leadership to get a greater sense of its objectives and priorities, and the domestic political situation. It’s simply untenable that the world’s main communication channels to the North Korean leader are his former sushi chef and Dennis Rodman.

Pyongyang’s attitude and rhetoric should be closely assessed in the coming months, and if the North ceases from slander and provocation and continues to put forward a framework for thawing ties, Washington and Seoul should acknowledge these gestures and reassess their approach.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.