South Korean Signals: the Role of Humanitarian Assistance



At the end of last week, there was mounting evidence that the Park Geun-hye government was trying to lower the temperature on the peninsula and that humanitarian assistance would play a central role. On Thursday, Minister of Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae made the mistake of admitting that the closure of Kaesong was causing pain to South Korean firms and workers—a tactical faux pas—but signaled the possibility of opening a channel by saying that the future of the KIC and other issues should be addressed through dialogue. During Secretary of State Kerry’s visit on Friday, ROK officials restated their willingness to resume humanitarian assistance to the North, aid that was effectively made conditional on the nuclear issue during the Lee Myung-bak administration. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se was quoted as saying that "we are always ready to provide humanitarian aid, in principle" as long as it could be monitored.

In fact, the indications of a willingness to use humanitarian assistance as an opening gambit began on March 22, when the Ministry of Unification authorized a shipment of medicine by the Eugene Bell foundation worth 6.78 million won (US$607,722). The strategy was made explicit during a policy briefing to Park on March 27 in which the foreign ministry and MOU outlined their strategy for the year; MOU offers a particularly concise statement of objectives, accompanied by some tables. The foreign ministry summarized a three-step approach with ascending levels of reciprocity:

  • In the first step, South Korea would provide humanitarian aid to North Korea without asking for anything in return. The government would merely “call” for the North to keep the agreements made with the South; as we have documented, the North has officially abrogated a number of those agreements.
  • Conditionality enters in the next stage. If trust is established—presumably with some reciprocal actions--South Korea would expand inter-Korean economic cooperation without linking it to the nuclear issue. The MOU document outlines a number of possible steps in this regard, including “globalizing” the Kaesong complex. This would involve active pursuit of inclusion of Kaesong products in the FTAs Korea signs. (This excludes KORUS, where the South Korean request for duty-free treatment of KIC products was side-stepped by setting up a bi-national commission to monitor the issue. There is no way that the US will grant duty-free access under current conditions, and indeed, Executive Order 13570 was issued prior to the Congressional vote to make this clear.)
  • The third-stage step would involve larger-scale government assistance, but only the North takes serious measures for denuclearization.

These humanitarian actions are nested in the broader “trustpolitik” strategy that Park outlined in a major speech we reproduced in November.  In addition to trust-building, Park's approach includes consensus-building at home and maintaining the deterrent. As always, Bruce Klingner offers a cogent summary. Sadly, Pyongyang quickly rejected the overture, but these are all opening moves in a long slog. With US policy stuck in strategic patience, initiatives are going to have to come from Seoul.

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