A New Focus on Inter-Korean Relations: Twelve Policy Recommendations for Park Geun-hye

By | February 24, 2013 | No Comments

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A New Focus on Inter-Korean Relations: Twelve Policy Recommendations for Park Geun-hye

Today in Seoul, Park Geun-hye will be inaugurated as president of the Republic of Korea. Inevitably, one of President Park’s early policy priorities will be North Korea: even if she doesn’t want it to be, one way or another Pyongyang will make sure that it is. With that fait accompli in mind, Jang Jin-sung, a former member of both the DPRK Central Broadcasting Committee and the Central Party, not to mention a leading North Korean poet, has prepared some policy proposals for the new leader.

Having abandoned the life of an analyst for the South Korean state, Mr. Jang is the founder and chief editor of the exceptional online source New Focus and its English-language offshoot, New Focus International.- Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

A New Focus on Inter-Korean Relations: Twelve Policy Recommendations for Park Geun-hye

by Jang Jin-sung

1. Be wise in choice of name: define inter-Korean policy within a framework of mutual trust

Perhaps the biggest mistake of the Lee Myung-bak administration in the sphere of inter-Korean affairs was its choice of name for inter-Korean policy. Using a word that would have irked Kim Jong-il (whether by chance or by design), the policy was christened ‘Denuclearization and Openness 3000 (비핵개방3000).’ This is one of the reasons why, from the very beginning, dialogue appeared doomed to failure. The incoming administration must choose a more sensitive name for its inter-Korean policy.

For example, in line with Park Geun-hye’s campaign emphasis on “trust,” the policy could be named “Rebuilding Inter-Korean Trust.” Not only will such a line save the administration from criticism from North Korea and pro-North groups, the rebuilding of trust is beneficial for all parties. Although North Korea may be frightened of “trust” as much as “denuclearization,” a built-in reminder of reciprocal trust leads at least to rhetorical, if not also practical, benefits.

2. Define limits in inter-Korean policy

At present (this article was written in January), president-elect Park is stressing the following three points as pillars of South Korea’s inter-Korean policy:

“Confidence of the citizens;”

“Confidence between South and North Korea;” and

“The confidence of the international community.”

However, within such a broad scope, Park is likely to encounter difficulty in executing her inter-Korean policy. “Confidence of the citizens” and “Confidence between South and North Korea” will inevitably lead to contradiction, while “The confidence of the international community” is too loose a concept to be of practical value. It will allow North Korea and pro-North groups an invitation to intervene in the formation of South Korea’s inter-Korean policy, even though responsibility for subsequent failures will rest in the end with the South Korean government.

There needs to be a tighter focus and limits set for South Korea’s inter-Korean policy. For example, the concept of confidence could still be retained if the following three points were to be used instead:

“Confidence in national security;”

“Confidence in collaboration;” and

“Confidence in prosperity.”

The setting of precise limits would allow North Korea to share the burden of responsibility for making things happen, instead of South Korea retaining sole responsibility for earning the confidence of its citizens, of North Korea, and of the international community.

Kim Jong-un among supporters | Rodong Sinmun, February 23, 2013.

Kim Jong-un among supporters | Rodong Sinmun, February 23, 2013.

3. Engage in dialogue with North Korea’s real power-brokers

In today’s North Korea, Kim Jong-un is a figurehead for North Korea’s real power-holders. For all practical purposes, this concentrated group of power-holders – and not Kim Jong-un – is the successor to Kim Jong-il’s one-man rule.

It is for this reason that South Korea’s participation in another inter-Korean summit will only serve to legitimize the status of Kim Jong-un in the rest of the world. This is why inter-Korean dialogue should take place with the respective nations’ power-brokers dealing with each other behind the scenes, instead of the heads of state taking part in a public, but insubstantial, inter-Korean summit. This move would push North Korea into unfamiliar territory, as it lacks experience in co-operative politics. It might even serve to increase the size of the current group of power-holders, spreading influence more widely.

Most significantly, engaging in dialogue directly with real power-brokers instead of through summitry will communicate to these figures that the international community does not perceive Kim Jong-un as a powerful leader.

4. Do not miss the opportunity of May and June

When I worked on inter-Korean policy in North Korea (before my defection), we described our work as “South Korea farming” instead of “South Korea diplomacy.” North Korea focuses its dialogue with South Korea on the goal of receiving food aid. Consequently, North Korea is most interested in dialogue during the pre-farming season of late February / early March, and during the spring famine period of early May / June. Traditionally, North Korea begins by creating a tense atmosphere and presenting a hard line. South Korea then pleads for dialogue or offers food aid in order to placate the North.

If North Korea provokes hostilities in June, this is a sign that the year will not be a good one for inter-Korean dialogue opportunities. As July is corn-harvest season, North Korea will know by this time whether it has enough supplies to last the year – if so, there will be no desperate desire for inter-Korean dialogue. This is why the incoming administration must pay attention to the real significance of the months of May and June.

This is not to say that humanitarian aid is to be used as a political tool. Rather, it argues that the “May and June” insecurities should be properly understood. In other words, if North Korea offers to engage in dialogue around this time, South Korea must not fail to make reasonable demands in return.

Ecstatic North Koreans wave to family after one of the most recent sets of family reunions, held in 2007 | image via USA Today

Ecstatic North Koreans wave to family after one of the most recent sets of family reunions, held in 2007 | image via USA Today

5. Remove inter-Korean family reunions from the remit of South Korea’s Unification Ministry

North Korea uses inter-Korean family reunions (이상 가족 상봉) as a bargaining chip. This works particularly well for the North because they come under the umbrella of South Korea’s Unification Ministry. When North Korea wants to express dissatisfaction with the actions of South Korea or needs to shift blame, it can use the reunions as a high-value chip. The fact that this humanitarian cause remains at the mercy of North Korea’s political whim is a strategic mistake for South Korea.

The inter-Korean family reunions must be supported by the South Korean government, but should be run by the people. If an NGO came to be in charge of reunions, they could be dealt with on a humanitarian level detached from politics. South Korean policy-makers must not forget this: North Korea is a dictatorship in which everything can be controlled under one organ; South Korea is a democracy where things don’t need to be – and should not be – controlled by a single organ. One of the best ways to combat dictatorship is for people outside government to share in responsibility and in power.

6. The Kaesong Industrial Zone should be internationalized

The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations wanted the Kaesong Industrial Zone (개성공단) to be a zone of peace. Sadly, neither in the sphere of communications nor in the freedom of movement for goods or people has this vision become a reality. The root cause of this unresolved issue is this: although North Korea deals with inter-Korean affairs through the Party, the industrial zone comes under the remit of the military; and this allows North Korea to dominate the zone. In order to resolve this, the zone should be shared not with South Korea, but with the rest of the world.

Corporations looking for cheap labour and a distribution base should be welcomed into Kaesong so that the zone comes to be perceived as an economic arena rather than primarily as a political one. In this way, the zone of peace that the proponents of sunshine policy wished for could materialize. As long as inter-Korean economic relations take place directly between the two Koreas and without the involvement of third parties, the situation will continue to be dictated by political threats and tensions.

The symbol of division: Panmunjom and the DMZ in days of yore | image via RetroDPRK

The symbol of division: Panmunjom and the DMZ in days of yore | image via RetroDPRK

7. Recognize North Korea’s most sensitive spot: the DMZ

In response to South Korea’s DMZ broadcasting, North Korea over-reacted by likening it to gun fire. To North Korea, the prospect of psychological warfare is as frightening as a nuclear weapon is for the world. In this way, the Kim Jong-un regime is in a very different situation from the Kim Il-sung regime. He may have inherited the same regime, but the people’s loyalty has not remained constant. Due to the mushrooming of private markets, the currency of loyalty is losing value and being replaced by hard currency. It has come to the point where there are even cases of ideological defection.

In this context, in the case that North Korea again attempts physical provocation, South Korea must immediately resume psychological warfare on the DMZ. This will provide valuable leverage for bringing North Korea to the dialogue table, because if  separative forces appear in the military, North Korea will incur a political loss incomparable to Chinese border defections. The Chinese-North Korean border crossing is a line of survival, but the DMZ border crossing is a line of ideology.

8. Conduct diplomacy by means of special envoys, instead of relying on public dialogue

In the diplomatic execution of inter-Korean policy, the Park Geun-hye administration should make use of special envoys instead of relying on public dialogue. Until now, inter-Korean dialogue has been conducted extremely conspicuously in relation to the actual fruits of dialogue, because South Korean politicians wished to exaggerate their accomplishments and North Korea in turn took advantage of this. In fact, public diplomacy has been more beneficial for North Korea than it has been for South Korea.

With statements such as “It seems North Korea has made a big decision” or a small agreement being likened to “a great compromise on North Korea’s part,” South Korean politicians have buttressed North Korea. Consequently, North Korea has used inter-Korean dialogue as a tool of psychological warfare. The Park Geun-hye administration must ensure that public inter-Korean dialogue does not take place without the ground first set by special envoys.

This allows South Korea to remain silent while it waits for North Korea to respond with an action that confirms that mutual trust has been laid down. This will demonstrate to North Korea that actions carry more weight than words.

9. Stay ahead by emphasizing true dialogue

There is a joke that the most moderate politician in the Kim Jong-il regime was Kim Jong-il himself. This is because in the North Korean system where showing loyalty is key, everyone under Kim Jong-il was locked in a fierce competition to demonstrate more loyalty than their peers. If a proposal had the potential to be interpreted as appeasement, a rival could use it as evidence to precipitate a purge. As a result of officials shirking real responsibility, Kim Jong-il represented both the peak of moderation as well as of extremism. As all decisions lay with Kim Jong-il’s whim, South Korea’s inter-Korean policy was never stable.

Nevertheless, now the situation is very different. Kim Jong-un must ask the advice of those ranked below him, and every time he does so, the elite are burdened with an unprecedented and terrifying level of responsibility. This elite is not likely to suggest innovations to North Korea’s inter-Korean policy. Instead, it will probably stick with the safe option of the established policy of ‘uriminzokkiri’ (우리민족끼리; ‘Just between us Koreans’) and focus on the single purpose of extracting aid. The Park Geun-hye administration must therefore concentrate on making reciprocal demands, ensuring that the existing pattern of aggression and appeasement is replaced by true dialogue.

10. Rethink South Korea’s response to North Korea’s NLL (Northern Limit Line) strategy

On land, the DPRK pushes for inter-Korean collaboration and on receiving aid. At sea however, the regime is pursuing a provocative strategy of causing confrontation along the Northern Limit Line (북방 한계선). They do this at sea, through submarines and bombardment, in order to exploit South Korea’s desire to avoid direct confrontation. What the DPRK fears most in turn is confrontation happening on their own soil. If North Koreans hear the sound of a military engagement, this erodes the efficacy of the regime’s ‘Songun’ (선군; Military-first) propaganda.

A political and security hot potato, the Northern Limit Line | image via Monster Island

A political and security hot potato, the Northern Limit Line | image via Monster Island

If South Korea were to meet submarine provocation by attacking the submarine base, and confront bombmardment at its cause, North Korea’s NLL strategy can be put in disarray. Above all, South Korea should avoid being led here and there by North Korea’s proposals but to ignore them, stressing only for peace in South Korea and defence against North Korea. Furthermore, if South Korea responds to DPRK provocations and threats by conducting joint US-ROK drills in the area, China will inevitably be led to urge the DPRK to restrain itself.

11. Place cultural exchanges before all other kinds of exchange

There are two dictatorships in the DPRK. One is the physical dictatorship. The other is the emotional dictatorship, which rules over hearts and minds. Yet precisely because this dual dictatorship is so thorough, even a small puncture can cause impact in the system. For example, the Korean Wave (한류열풍) has already started to erode the regime’s ideological grip on the people. Despite the fact that North and South Koreans speak the same language, the very different culture of the “other” Korea has captivated North Koreans. South Korean administrations have until now focused on economic exchanges in the sphere of inter-Korean relations, but cultural exchanges should not have been ignored.

The spontaneity of South Korean culture is more powerful than the planned ideology of the DPRK, or even its nuclear arsenal. The incoming ROK administration must do everything it can to support cultural exchanges, both on the official and non-official levels.

12. Do not ignore the long-run

To think that a 5-year old administration can successfully take on a regime in its third generation and third ideological incarnation is rash in many regards. Two inter-Korean summits have not prevented North Korea from making threats and provocations. In this context, South Korea’s inter-Korean policy must not ignore the long-run. Aligning South Korean opinion through sharing concepts is a crucial step in planning for the long-run: this is more effective than constantly pursuing unpopular policies.

It should have become clear by now that the DPRK is not prepared to acknowledge another point of view. Although South Korea should remain in dialogue with the DPRK, it should not pour all its funds into a single investment. North Korea must be drawn out, step by step, before reward is provided. This has not been the case  so far, with South Korean politicians being focused on immediate accomplishments rather than on long term gain.

Additional Reading

Steven Denney and Christopher Green, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Moon Chung-in’s Vision of Sunshine,” Sino-NK, 10 November, 2012.

Steven Denney and Christopher Green, “Fog on the Han: North Korea Says It Wants a Delegation at Park Geun-hye’s Inauguration,” Sino-NK, 23 January, 2013.

Christopher Green, “A Quiet Voice, Lost in the Shuffle,” Daily NK, 1 June, 2012.

Marcus Noland, “South Korean Public Opinion as Park Geun-hye Takes Office,” North Korea: Witness to Transformation Blog, 5 February, 2013.

Evan Ramsted, “Lee, in Final Week, Reveals North Korea’s 2009 Summit Feeler,” Wall Street Journal (Korea Real Time), 18 February 2013.

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