For the photo-op that summits generally are, the important events in inter-Korean relations are happening on the Korean peninsula, not at the R.O.K.-U.S. summit in Washington, D.C. Optimism is rampant, in what one official called a “provocation pause” following the redeployment of two Musudan missiles to a non-operational mode. And, the Bank of China has halted transactions with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. Finally, Pyongyang threatened South Korea with retaliation for allied drills conducted near the Yellow Sea.
In the highly conditional threat, the section of the Korean People’s Army responsible for operations in North Korea’s southwest said it would hit back if any shells fall in its territory during the drills, which began Monday and are to end Friday. Should the allies respond to that, it said the North Korean military will strike five South Korean islands along the aquatic frontline between the countries.
The area includes waters that are claimed by both countries, and is the most likely scene of any future clash between the rival Koreas. North Korea disputes a boundary unilaterally drawn close to its shores by the U.S.-led U.N. Command after the war, and has had three bloody naval clashes with the South since 1999.
Highly critical language is standard from North Korea during what the allies call routine military drills that they stage over the course of a year. Tuesday’s statement was less bellicose than the rhetoric Pyongyang regularly unleashed during two months of larger-scale joint military drills by the allies that ended one week ago. That included threats of nuclear and missile strikes on Washington and Seoul.
But, South Korea’s president stole the spotlight in the United States with this provocative response in a CBS interview.
According to former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg, President Park carries the potential for inter-Korean reconciliation due to her unique experiences in her father’s lifetime.
I met her first when I was chief of station in Seoul in the mid-’70s. I was there when her mother was shot by a North Korean agent who was aiming at her father, but missed her father and killed her mother. She went to North Korea in 2001 and met with Kim Jong-il. And I met her in South Korea in 2002 and congratulated her for going.
And I will never forget her response. She said, “We must look to the future with hope, not to the past with bitterness.”
And I think she carries that inside her. And I think she has a lot more political leeway to make some moves toward the North to get things going. And, again, I come back to Kaesong as something that worked to the benefit of both of their sides, that was something that can be worked on. There are also track two activities which can be encouraged.
Beyond these superficial glosses and boilerplate threats, most experts view this summit as little more than a first date for Obama and Park. The Hankyoreh is disappointed with the summit statement.
It did not include any daring proposal or plan that could transform the situation. The two leaders once again reiterated their intention to maintain the alliance between the US and South Korea and their combined defensive posture, and they agreed to develop these further. In particular, the US said that it supports the trust-building process for the Korean peninsula that Park Geun-hye has been touting, promising to keep open the door for dialogue while still responding firmly to any provocations by North Korea.
The trust-building process for the Korean peninsula, Park’s signature policy toward North Korea, is a plan to implement active policies of reconciliation with North Korea, including not only aid for North Korea but also development of an economic community. All of this aid, however, is predicated on North Korea making the “right choice” and giving up its nuclear weapons and refraining from new provocations. During the summit, both Park and Obama reaffirmed and emphasized the importance of this plan. In other words, dialogue and pressure were mentioned side by side, but the emphasis was placed on North Korea refraining from provocative behavior and being the first to change. It is in this way that pressure on the North is more significant, and it appears that this was a result of South Korea’s position being stressed more than the position of the US.
As a result of this, Park Geun-hye’s interview with CBS is being placed in the spotlight once more. In an interview broadcast on US TV channel CBS on May 6, the day before the summit meeting with Obama, Park took a hard line, demanding change from the North.
During the interview, host Margaret Brennan asked Park if she would meet with Kim Jong-un face to face and what she would say. Park said that she would meet him if the opportunity arose, but that she did not think that the current situation was the right time for it. “North Korea must change. I want to say that that is the only way for the North to survive, and the only way for it to develop,” said Park in a brief response. These remarks once again emphasize her position that North Korea must be the first to change.
Park was also asked whether South Korea would respond to a localized attack like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 with a “military response”, unlike the Lee Myung-bak administration. “Yes, we will make them pay,” Park said firmly.
From the perspective of North Korea, which has probably been waiting to see the outcome of the summit, it is very likely that this will not be taken as a positive signal that will bring them to the negotiating table.
This is the reason behind the assessment of the situation made by Inje University professor Kim Yeon-cheol. “There were high hopes for the summit between the US and South Korea, hopes that it might provide a way out of this critical situation, but nothing of the sort can be seen,” Kim said. “It is unlikely that this will serve as an opportunity for overcoming the obstacles we are facing at the present.”
Scott Snyder is also skeptical.
In the past, the prospective costs of any conflict have inhibited a realistic U.S.-ROK discussion of how to achieve a desirable end state on the Korean peninsula, and negotiations have inspired false hopes for a peaceful pathway to Korean reunification. But North Korea’s aspirations to develop a nuclear strike capacity and the closure of Kaesong have shattered these illusions. Presidents Obama and Park must show decisive and coordinated leadership to contain North Korea’s reckless threats.
Joel Wit calls current American strategy misguided.
Actually, a myth-based policy helps explain in part why we are in this mess to begin with. During its first term, the Obama administration pursued an approach called “strategic patience,” based on the flawed assumption that isolating a weak North would convince it to stop behaving badly. Although experts with decades of experience dealing with Pyongyang warned that this policy would not work, the administration went ahead anyway. Sure enough, strategic patience had the opposite effect; Pyongyang’s behavior is worse than ever before and its WMD programs continue to make progress.
Chest-thumping and myth-based decision-making? It sounds as if the South Koreans and Americans are off to a convenient meeting of the “minds” based on mutual delusion.