Tensions Update IV: The Agreement



8:30 PM East Coast Time, 9:30 AM Seoul

Seoul—where I am currently participating in a KBS forum today—woke up to news of the agreement reached early this morning between the North and South. In an odd role reversal, Yonhap posted the English-language version of the agreement released by the KCNA. This twist itself raises an interesting question. Did the South insist that it do so? Or do the North Koreans—in their parallel universe—see this as a victory of some sort?

As I argued in my last update, the circumstances surrounding the talks make it hard to see this as anything but a North Korean stand-down. If North Korea had wanted talks, all they had to do was pick up the phone. We would have to give Pyongyang extraordinary prescience to believe they could have planned the highly-contingent set of events over the last two weeks that lead to the talks and agreement.

But in addition, the text comes about as close to an apology as we are likely to see; John Everard—former British Ambassador to the North and also in Seoul—commented to me that Pyongyang hasn’t issued a statement like this since the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders.

The components of an apology include an acknowledgement that you committed the act in question, a sense of remorse, and a commitment not to do it again. The first element is arguably missing, and it in an important element: as with the Japan history controversy, it is hard to interpret a statement of remorse if those offering it don’t acknowledge the circumstances in the first place. But when placed in the context of the entire package, the formula of “we didn’t do it and we are not going to do it again” pretty clearly acknowledges that the August 4 mine incident was of their doing. (Where in the chain of command the order came from is another issue, but we should not necessarily assume it came from the top; this could be cleanup for a dumb decision made lower down).

More importantly, the KCNA version acknowledges that the loudspeakers are turned off only if the North ceases and desists. Here, translation becomes important. The KCNA version says “unless an abnormal event occurs,” but our colleague Jaesung Ryu suggests that “as long as no further unusual events occur” as more accurate.

It is impossible to understand the events without looking at them through a military lens. The leadership in Pyongyang will undoubtedly shape the entire domestic narrative around a single line in the agreement: that it will lift the “semi-war” state that they declared last week. But any North Korean general with enough information on the sequence of events would know that this is a purely face-saving claim. To her credit, Madame Park made one crucial decision that clarified the balance of forces: she completely ignored the threats and had her government state unequivocally that the broadcasts would continue past Pyongyang’s deadline.

The episode might some day become grist for a PhD dissertation, and we currently don’t have full information on the artillery exchanges and disposition and movement of forces. But among the relevant pieces of information are the background of the US-ROK exercises, the artillery counterstrike following the initial North Korean shelling, and a highly-visible show of South Korean and American airpower. Perhaps most interesting, however, was the quite public announcement by the ROK Minister of Defense on Monday—with the talks ongoing—that South Korea was consulting with the US over the movement of strategic assets. Kim Min-Seok—the MOD spokesman making the announcement—did not enumerate the possible hardware in question, but others were happy to oblige: B-52 and B-2 bombers and F-22 Raptor advanced stealth fighters from U.S. bases in Guam and Japan and a submarine stationed at the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka in central Japan. These leaks put breathy reporting of North Korean force movements in a somewhat different perspective. For example, Yonhap reported intelligence that 50 North Korean submarines—an estimated 70 percent of the fleet—were out to sea. But against the broader backdrop this is more rightly seen as a defensive rather than offensive move: to avoid a Pearl Harbor if escalation were to occur.

I want to again stress that however we got here, the larger strategic point is to figure out what this means for diplomacy on the peninsula. And it is precisely here that the overall landscape becomes much murkier and North Korea may have come out quite well.

Let’s start with the North’s use of the Republic of Korea last week (Hankyoreh). Usually, the South is referred to as “south Korea,” or simply as the puppets. But this statement could also be interpreted as a pre-emptive move: to blunt the Park administration’s unification talk by reminding everyone that North Korea does in fact exist. In effect, “you—the ROK—stay there; we—the Kim Dynasty—will stay here.”

And beyond the resolution of the current tensions, South Korea is once again back in its perennial bind: that the agreement commits North Korea to surprisingly little. The only thing in the agreement with a date-certain is to hold family reunions, an utterly costless move for the North. Need we reiterate how utterly shameful—and indicative--it is that the North Koreans manipulate this issue in the first place? I strongly believe in civic engagement; let South Korean NGOs and other civil society organizations do whatever they want in the North. But the agenda of wider talks is highly uncertain. Talks on aid and larger scale projects in the North will only make sense in the long run if the main issues are on the table, even if indirectly: nuclear weapons, the bloated North Korean military and economic reform.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle: how China has responded. In addition to its usually-maddening statements about “both sides remaining calm,” Chad Carroll’s NKNews picked up a remarkable development from the Chinese blogosphere: evidence of large-scale troop movements along the Chinese-North Korean border. Although quickly shut down, according to NKNews the hardware included “PTZ-89 tank destroyers (Type 89), a PGZ-95 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (Type 95 SPAAA) and 155 mm self-propelled guns.” If China is finally getting serious about North Korea, the best possible outcome of this unfortunate series of events would be not only North-South talks—with their inherent limitations—but to actually get the multilateral Six Party Talks process going again.

Full Text of the Inter-Korean Agreement as released by the KCNA.

  1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.
  1. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side's area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.
  1. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.
  1. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.
  1. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.
  1. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields.

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