February has been a good month for diplomacy in Northeast Asia. After the governments of China and Taiwan met officially for the first time since 1949, in Nanjing, the governments of South and North Korea last week held their highest-level discussions in seven years.
Not only did dialogue take place, but progress was made as Pyongyang agreed to allow long-postponed reunions of separated families to go ahead. It is a tentative first step, and one that can be erased, but it is a start for the “trust-building process” that will be the foundation of better relations on the Korean Peninsula.
While the Korean War leveled both countries, much of the physical damage was repaired. The human and psychological scars are deep and unhealing, however.
Korean families were permanently divided by that campaign, not only by diverging loyalties, but physically: Many individuals in the South were taken hostage as North Korean troops retreated and military fortifications along the 38th Parallel ensured that those families remained separate, denied even rudimentary communications such as mail or phone calls.
Sixty years after war’s end, that generation is dying out. Recognizing the extraordinary human cost of division, the two governments agreed to reunion visits: Since 2000, when the first inter-Korean summit was held, there have been 18 rounds of face-to-face reunions and seven rounds of video reunions, permitting 21,000 people to reunite.
Unfortunately there have been no meetings since 2010 as the reunions became another card in the diplomatic war between the two governments. North Korea has on numerous occasions promised then reneged on the pledge to hold meetings.
Last September, it looked as though reunions might be held, but Pyongyang pulled out at the last minute, charging the Seoul government with poisoning the environment. It is hard to imagine a crueler gambit.
The meetings have become an indicator of the larger state of inter-Korean relations. Since Kim Jong Un came to power in North Korea, tension between the two Koreas has been palpable.
Pyongyang gave up on former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak halfway through his term and, judging from its rhetoric, appears to have quickly decided that it can do no better with his successor, Park Gyuen-hye.
Park has called for a “trust-building process,” suggesting that both sides must work to build a better relationship. Her call has infuriated the North as Pyongyang prefers to be the demandeur in inter-Korean relations.
It is not clear why Pyongyang decided to compromise. True, Kim called on both countries to work to improve relations in his New Year’s Day speech, but that is a staple of North Korean rhetoric and has typically meant that the South must first oblige Pyongyang with some compromise or other.
Park countered a week later with the suggestion for reunions, a step that the North accepted but made conditional on the cancellation of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States that were scheduled to be held at the time of the reunions. Seoul refused to bend, insisting there should be no linkage between political and humanitarian initiatives.
Nevertheless, last week, the two Korean governments had their highest level meeting in seven years, at which they agreed to let the reunions proceed and permit 84 North Koreans and 85 South Koreans meet for five days beginning Thursday at the Mount Kumgang resort. The two sides also agreed to stop slandering each other, although South Korean negotiators insisted that a democracy cannot gag all domestic media.
The North is most likely concerned about radio broadcasts originating in the South. The two sides also agreed to another round of high-level talks, but no dates were set.
There are several reasons why the North is ready to proceed. Some believe that internal tumult following the arrest and execution of Jang Song Thaek and the purge of his supporters has forced Kim to lower tensions with the South.
By this logic, the government cannot afford to struggle on multiple fronts and has prioritized domestic affairs. If the reunions burnish Kim’s image in the South, then that is a bonus.
Similarly the Pyongyang government could reason that reunions are of interest primarily to Koreans and has abandoned hope of a breakthrough in relations with Washington. Progress with Seoul could, by this logic, give the South a reason to split from Washington’s hard line.
Last week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Northeast Asia to build support for efforts to push Pyongyang back to the table for nuclear talks adds urgency to this mission.
A third explanation points to preparations at North Korea’s nuclear test site. While no one believes a test is imminent, part of the preparatory process is building diplomatic support to shield Pyongyang from censure when a test occurs. That would ask too much of Seoul, but the North has deluded itself before about the consequences of its actions.
As ever, nothing is done till the reunions are held. But by all accounts, the North is eager to deal. South Korea’s top negotiator called the agreement “meaningful” and “a first step toward development of inter-Korean relations based on confidence.”
North Korea’s National Defense Commission says it is determined “to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and unity.” If so, it knows what to do. As ever, it can improve relations whenever it chooses. Reunions are an obvious first step.