It’s easy to be cynical – or surprised – about the prospects when negotiating with the North Koreans. It’s healthily reflexive to doubt their intentions, but it’s wrong to do so without accepting, that its better to have Pyongyang at the table than not. As Stephan Haggard argues, let’s acknowledge what the North Koreans did right, yet be wary.
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.
Or, we can just hope this whole manipulative offer is snubbed by the South, tensions mount, and unification by war commences. Come on, everyone is doing it! Civil war is good for business!