The North Korean offer of talks has all of the hallmarks of Pyongyang’s diplomacy. Pyongyang is “sincerely” and “magnanimously” inviting the South to fix—and pay for–problems of the North’s own creation. The offer is also transparently timed to coincide with the Obama-Xi summit, suggesting—probably wrongly—that the North is willing to do something substantive to unfreeze relations on the peninsula.
Nonetheless, the Park administration is right to take up the offer. The US should take an agnostic, “wait and see” approach that avoids our deep cynicism; the less said the better. The risks are well-known: that the North is trying to normalize its nuclear status and drive wedges between Seoul and Washington while resuming cash transfers from the South. But Park Geun Hye is perfectly aware of these risks and the talks are unlikely to conclude without at least some discussion of the nuclear issue. Given the lack of high-level North-South channels and the fact that nothing new is likely to come out of Washington, more information is better than less. Is there really anything to lose?
What is on offer? The Northern statement, issued in the name of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea tasked with managing North-South relations, offers talks on three issues: Kaesong, the Mt. Kumgang resort and family unification visits (“if necessary”). The quid pro quo is clearly normalization of Kaesong and Kumgang—and resumption of the $120 million plus of annual transfers from them—in exchange for family visits. The North would also like some joint celebration of the anniversary of a 1972 joint communiqué and the 2000 Kim Dae Jung-Kim Jong Il summit. Needless to say, there is no mention of the broader security context, including the nuclear issue; such discussions would have to emerge organically from these initial trust-building steps.
For the record, it is important to be clear about the source of the problem in each of these three areas. Kaesong was shut down by Pyongyang. The Mt. Kumgang project was terminated by the South when the North refused to offer adequate assurances on safety at the site following the killing of the tourist Park Wang-ja in July 2008. The North subsequently seized the assets and sought to dispose of them to third parties; our posts on this drawn-out saga can be found here. And as for family visits, they were rationed for quid-pro-quos during the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years and shut down entirely during the LMB period. Given the lower life expectancy in North Korea—a result of government failure to provide for the health and longevity of its population—most of the family members the North could have offered have long since died. Divided families are not a “tragic situation,” as the statement implies; they are the result of shameful and utterly mercenary policy.
The proposed process has one or two interesting features, however. The North Korean proposal suggests several steps:
- If the South agrees to the talks—which it now has—the Park administration gets to choose the venue. The talks will be held in the South next week.
- Visits by those with business stakes in Kumgang and Kaesong could resume immediately, although it is not clear whether production would be allowed to resume immediately. The North initially sought to resume talks only with the firms in the zone. The South rightly refused, not simply on political grounds but because it is effectively a party to the project and wants to limit its liability. Moreover, there is going to be tough bargaining over Kaesong as there have been reports that inventory was sold off and perhaps even capital equipment as well. Is the North going to make South Korean firms whole?
- The North would like to see joint celebrations not only of the Kim-Kim summit of 2000 but also of the July 4 declaration of 1972. Reference to the North-South summit and the 1972 agreement are germane for four reasons. First, the North may believe that reference to the 1972 document shows respect to Park Geun Hye’s father, who was in office at the time. Second, however, there is a small poison pill. The 1972 document—which lays down important principles for thinking about reunification–begins by stating that “reunification should be achieved independently, without reliance upon outside force or its interference.” This language came as a surprise at the time, since it reflected long-standing North Korean interest in dividing the US and the ROK. Third, the 2000 summit celebration proposal is important because of its suggestion of a return to the good old days. The Kim-Kim summit ushered in a period of sustained engagement in North-South relations that included substantial, and largely unrequited, aid from the South. Finally, the North Korean proposal pointedly ignores reference to the more recent Basic Agreement (Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression and Exchanges And Cooperation Between the South and the North, signed in December 1991 and entering into force in 1992), which was ultimately linked to the subsequent North-South agreement on denuclearization; clearly, Pyongyang does not want to revisit this cluster of agreements.
The difficult issues for the Park administration will be to structure the agenda to permit some discussion of the future course of negotiations on a wider agenda that includes the nuclear issue; Seoul has rightly signaled that the nuclear issue cannot be finessed by Pyongyang as outside of the purview of North-South relations. The North could well refuse. But the costs strike us as minimal; if the Park administration sees no meaningful gains from the talks, it is pretty easy to return to strategic patience, which is what South Korean policy is increasingly resembling. Yonhap has a useful chronology of proposals on talks under the Park administration.
The North Korean statement
The spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) released the following special statement Thursday: It is 13 years since the publication of the historic June 15 joint declaration.
All the Koreans still remember the June 15 era when the spirit for national reunification ran high all over the country and are ardently wishing for the earlier improvement of the north-south relations and opening of a new phase for reunification.
The publication of the joint declaration was a special event for the Korean nation in making steps toward ending the history of division and confrontation forced by outsiders and opening up a new era for independent reunification.
Signal events that were presented on this land after the advent of the June 15 era proved that there is nothing impossible for the Koreans to do and that they can achieve the common prosperity of the nation and reunify the country for sure if they pool their efforts.
But the advance of the June 15 era has been held back and the last legacy of the era has been placed at the peril of destruction due to the serious challenge by anti-reunification forces at home and abroad.
This is truly deplorable.
South Korean businessmen are now strongly calling for the normalization of the operation in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) and the resumption of tour of Mt. Kumgang.
Families and their relatives separated in the north and the south are also craving reunion with their kinsfolk in their lifetime.
Whoever Koreans can never shun this tragic situation of today.
We have so far made every possible effort to improve the north-south ties now at a deadlock, resume tour of Mt. Kumgang, normalize the operation in the KIZ and settle humanitarian issues.
But all the sincerity and magnanimity shown by the DPRK have been denied and defiled with such sophism as “sincerity”, “contradiction among southerners” and “evasion of talks between authorities”.
We have never sought to create “contradiction among southerners”.
We have neither treated the south side’s authorities lightly nor approached it the way of making a fun of it as claimed by the South Korean authorities.
It is none other than the South Korean authorities who are abusing north-south dialogue for the purpose of escalating confrontation in a bid to meet their strategic aims However, we have no idea of idling away time with useless word-playing and exchange of rhetoric.
If the north and the south insist on their own assertions, it will never be possible to find a way of solving pending issues between the two sides.
This will further increase despair of South Korean businessmen and other people and disappointment of all fellow countrymen.
In view of the prevailing situation, the desire of all fellow countrymen and the ardent request of South Korean businessmen and other people, the CPRK clarifies the following crucial stand upon the authorization:
1. We propose holding talks between authorities of the north and the south for the normalization of the operation in the KIZ and the resumption of tour of Mt. Kumgang on the occasion of the anniversary of the June 15 joint declaration.
Such humanitarian issues as the reunion of separated families and their relatives can be discussed at the talks, if necessary.
The venue of the talks and the date for their opening can be set to the convenience of the south side.
2. We propose promptly realizing visits to the KIZ and the Special Zone for International Tour of Mt. Kumgang by South Korean businessmen and working contacts and promoting visits, contacts and cooperation among NGOs of the north and the south.
We have already approved the visits to the KIZ by businessmen and will allow the visits to the areas of the north side by South Korean businessmen concerned with the tour of Mt. Kumgang.
We also flung open the door to visits, contacts and cooperation among NGOs of South Korea.
3. We propose realizing joint national events to mark the 13th anniversary of the June 15 joint declaration and jointly commemorating the 41st anniversary of the July 4 joint statement in the presence of the authorities of both sides.
The commemoration of the June 15 joint declaration and the July 4 joint statement in the presence of the authorities together with NGOs of both sides will be significant and contribute to improving the north-south ties.
4. As soon as the South Korean authorities respond to our proposal with a view to ensuring talks between the authorities of the north and the south, visits to the KIZ and Mt. Kumgang by South Korean businessmen and joint national events and smoothly settling pending issues between the north and the south, all the relevant measures concerning communications and liaison will be taken including the issue of reopening the Panmunjom Red Cross liaison channel.
Consistent is our stand to promote national reconciliation and unity and achieve reunification, peace and prosperity.
If the South Korean authorities truly stand for building confidence and improving the north-south relations, they should not miss this opportunity but positively respond to our bold decision and sincere proposal, away from misguided speculation and suspicion.