Behind North Korea's Recent Outreach
A View From Seoul

by Ki-Young Sung
October 28, 2014

the South Korean government should recognize that inter-Korean relations at the current stage guide North Korea’s foreign relations and thus that South Korea has the responsibility to attempt a gradual and progressive resumption of exchanges and cooperation.

By Ki-Young Sung

October 28, 2014

Kim Jong-un’s closest aides, Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Yang-gon, “stole the show” at the seventeenth Asian Games, held in Incheon, South Korea. Their sudden visit to the South shook the political landscape of inter-Korean relations, which have been strained for the last seven years. However, their visit poses an issue that could be difficult for the South Korean government to deal with. The South Korean government should read North Korea’s underlying intentions to understand why Kim Jong-un decided to send his right-hand people to South Korea at this particular moment in time.

Key Points
  • North Korea’s recent engagement with South Korea must be viewed in the context of North Korea’s broader diplomatic initiatives.
  • Pyongyang’s diplomatic outreach efforts with the United States and Europe have been ineffective; therefore, North Korea wants to demonstrate improving inter-Korean relations.
  • Seoul should take advantage of this opportunity for improved relations by (1) diversifying its channels of communication with Pyongyang, (2) creating a transformative policy that is an alternative to the May 24 sanctions, (3) pursuing more channels of cooperation in areas such as environmental cooperation, and (4) offering sports exchanges.

The Kim Jong-un regime has striven to invigorate the North Korean economy, even by utilizing some deregulatory market measures, as it has attempted before in the past. In the second half of 2012, North Korea attempted to implement a self-management system known as the “June 28 measures,” strengthening its incentive system by adopting an “economic management system in our style.”

Even among experts, evaluations of these efforts vary. The World Food Programme announced that the amount of North Korea’s food rations in August 2014 plunged to the lowest numbers since 2011, recording 250 grams per person daily, which is 50% below Pyongyang’s own targets.

However, by viewing events through a more objective lens, a different story emerges demonstrating that the North Korean economy has exhibited unexpected stability. According to the Bank of Korea, there were no cases of serious unrest from 2012 to 2013 despite upheavals domestically and internationally, such as the imposition of sanctions after the third nuclear test and the purge of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

Considering this complex reality for North Korea’s economy, it is reasonable to believe that the Kim Jong-un regime’s goals are not confined to pursuing economic gains through improved ties with the South. It is more probable that the results of the vigorous diplomatic efforts that North Korea has recently attempted with Western countries explain the actual intentions of Hwang’s visit.

Pyongyang has pursued all-out diplomacy toward the West, including Europe and the United States, with Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong and Korean Workers’ Party Secretary for International Affairs Kang Sok-ju at the forefront of this diplomatic effort. Nevertheless, North Korea has had minimal success in making its presence felt on the multilateral diplomatic stage in New York, while its bilateral diplomacy in Europe also ended poorly, despite the participation of the country’s most senior-level diplomat. Moreover, at the UN General Assembly, Pyongyang sensed that Washington and Seoul were pressuring it over nuclear and human rights issues rather than focusing on how to improve relations with North Korea.

Traditionally accustomed to employing “pendulum diplomacy” based on “balance of dependency” tactics, the North Korean regime has approached diplomacy by balancing between two axes, with China and Russia on one side and the West, including South Korea, on the other. Even with its diplomacy with the Western bloc, North Korea has often tried to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States by opening up a direct channel with Washington while sidelining Seoul.

Consequently, as communication with Washington remains blocked and diplomatic efforts in Europe to find a solution to the deadlock have failed, it seems that Pyongyang hopes to demonstrate its confidence by improving inter-Korean relations.

Furthermore, with North Korean athletes exceeding the country’s original goal of finishing in the top ten at the Asian Games (actually finishing remarkably in seventh place), the North Korean regime appears to have planned an event during the most dramatic time, choosing to send out its most dramatic figures. The representatives in the Hwang trio were not limited to acting as a special envoy to South Korea; rather, North Korea was attempting to present its people to the international community in an effort to overcome its diplomatic isolation.

Seoul should have been aware that Pyongyang’s intention was to place the spotlight on the representatives by unveiling Hwang and Choe on the international stage. In spite of this, Seoul has decided courageously to create an occasion to improve inter-Korean ties by boldly accepting this unprecedented proposal. Considering that the Park Geun-hye administration has been prioritizing formality in inter-Korean relations, this decision could be interpreted as a meaningful attitude change for the improvement of the relationship. An overwhelming majority in the South Korean media also view this visit as a great opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, even though it was led by one of North Korea’s army chiefs. The South Korean government’s North Korea policy, as a result, is positioned to once again be pursued with the backing of public support.

Domestically, the Park Geun-hye administration’s idea of a “unification bonanza” and the activities of the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation have increased and are becoming a driving force. However, if the preparation for unification is not accompanied by progress in inter-Korean relations, it will become nothing more than mere political rhetoric. Similarly, if inter-Korean exchanges for the sake of exchange lack a purposeful path for unification of the divided nations, they will not succeed. In sum, Seoul could figure out meaningful implications for implementing works in preparation for unification if it is able to seize the opportunity that Hwang’s visit has provided.

The following four points could serve as a guideline for Seoul in preparation for the upcoming high-level talks with Pyongyang. First, Seoul should simultaneously prepare for diversifying its channels of communication, with the goal of resuming inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation in the future, as well as regularize high-level talks by arranging the dates and intervals for these talks. Since both Koreas named the agreed talks as the “second round” of high-level talks, it can be assumed that both sides have acquiesced to holding talks continuously. President Park has also requested the regularization of inter-Korean dialogue immediately following the return of the Hwang trio to North Korea. Therefore, it is necessary to maintain the momentum for improving relations by regularizing this relationship through holding, for example, monthly meetings and setting a future agenda at the second round of high-level talks.

Nonetheless, though the two Koreas agreed in February that the ensuing high-level talks are to discuss “comprehensive” mutual interests, it is impossible to deal with all the various issues during such talks in the event of resumption of the inter-Korean exchanges. Therefore, though high-level talks with representation from Blue House officials can open the doors to negotiations, ministerial-level talks are a sine qua non for the smooth implementation of an inter-Korean agenda, including President Park’s “Dresden Initiative.”

Ministerial-level talks would elevate the status of the inter-Korean high-level talks that are currently in the form of meetings at the vice-ministerial level. Furthermore, once ministerial-level talks begin to blossom, it will be necessary to continue elevating the level of inter-Korean talks in a step-by-step fashion, eventually upgrading these talks to the prime-ministerial level. But Seoul should not be swayed by Pyongyang’s demands for a corresponding measure in response to what the North might describe as Kim Jong-un’s “bold decision” to send Hwang, such as opening discussions for an inter-Korean summit between Kim and Park. In other words, the South Korean government needs to design a strategic hierarchy to prevent the entire burden from being imposed on the Blue House in the negotiations with the North.

Second, in preparation for the discussions to be held during the second round of high-level talks, the South Korean government should develop a transformative alternative policy as to whether or to what extent the “May 24 sanctions” against North Korea for its attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010 should be lifted. Undeniably, at the moment the May 24 sanctions are an agenda that needs revision in light of the recovery mood of inter-Korean relations and the Park administration’s willingness to implement its proposals to improve the relationship with North Korea. But the unilateral decision to lift the May 24 sanctions requires some consideration, as it is criticized for being inconsistent given that North Korea has not apologized or expressed regret for the sinking of the Cheonan.

Consequently, rather than declaring that South Korea will lift the May 24 sanctions unilaterally, the Park administration could propose a new agenda on inter-Korean economic cooperation that transcends the so-called May 24 framework, which forces Seoul to decide dichotomously to either lift or maintain the sanctions. Also, if North Korea accepts the Park administration’s proposal for humanitarian assistance, Seoul should consider quid pro quo types of negotiations, temporarily suspending the sanctions during this period of assistance.

Third, the South Korean government should focus on making efforts to open small channels between South and North Korea in areas such as environmental cooperation and cultural exchange. Despite Hwang’s visit bringing high expectations for improved relations, the current level of mutual trust in inter-Korean relations remains very low. Establishing basic trust is important for kick-starting the implementation of the “trust-building process” on the Korean Peninsula, the Park administration’s flagship North Korea policy. In this regard, projects proposed for inter-Korean functional cooperation—such as the joint management of rivers that run from North to South, the joint excavation and preservation of cultural heritage sites, and the resumption of academic exchanges—will act as a cornerstone for building basic trust between the two Koreas.

Fourth, Seoul needs to offer exchanges in the field of sports as an additional measure to improve its relations with the North. It is vital to create small but sustainable projects that institutionalize inter-Korean relations. For this, creating opportunities for sports exchanges could be an effective means to sustain relations between the two countries, given that fluctuations of political circumstances tend to have less effect in athletics. In particular, considering that South Korea’s and North Korea’s gold medals in men’s and women’s soccer, respectively, at the Asian Games provided an opportunity for resuming inter-Korean dialogue, suggestions for restarting the long-standing Kyung-Pyong (Seoul-Pyongyang) soccer event could be viable.

All in all, the South Korean government should recognize that inter-Korean relations at the current stage guide North Korea’s foreign relations and thus that South Korea has the responsibility to attempt a gradual and progressive resumption of exchanges and cooperation. As the flames of the Asian Games fade away, it is time for South Korea to calm its heart and catch its breath for long-term progress.

Ki-Young Sung is a Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). Dr. Sung received his PhD in international studies from the University of Warwick.

The views expressed are those of the author.