SEOUL – Last month, North and South Korea narrowly avoided a catastrophic military confrontation. After 40 hours of strenuous negotiations, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker broadcasts into the demilitarized zone between the two countries, in exchange for the North expressing “regret” for the South Korean soldiers killed by a land mine blast in the DMZ three weeks earlier.
While the crisis featured North Korea’s familiar belligerence and aggressive rhetoric, there were also some interesting new twists. Understanding these developments could help to generate enough momentum to initiate, after more than seven years of confrontation, genuine inter-Korean cooperation and help guide the peninsula toward a more peaceful and secure future.
The first new development is the South Korean leadership’s much firmer response to provocations from the North. In 2010, the South Korean public was sharply critical of the military’s failure to retaliate immediately following the North’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship carrying more than 100 personnel, and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island later that year.
After the recent land mine blasts, by contrast, President Park Geun-hye would not back down from her demands that the North, which denied planting the mines, apologize. Her approval ratings soared to 50 percent, from around 34 percent the previous month.
This shift, while popular in South Korea, carries serious risks for the peninsula. If an unyielding South becomes engaged in another military game of chicken with the often audacious and always erratic North, the results could be catastrophic. In this sense, an institutional framework for permanent inter-Korean peace is more urgent than ever.
The second development relates to China, which remained silent throughout the latest crisis — a significant departure from its stance in 2010, when it actively sided with North Korea on the international diplomatic stage. Of course, it is impossible to know whether China’s response this time marks a genuine strategic withdrawal from its role as the North’s only ally and key economic benefactor. China’s leaders may simply have decided that a tactical disciplining of the North’s leadership was in order. But, at a time when China’s relationship with South Korea is deepening, the silence has been deafening.
If China really is distancing itself from North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s regime will be almost entirely isolated internationally. Will Kim respond to that isolation recklessly, by continuing to antagonize the South, or pragmatically, by becoming more flexible?
That is not an easy question to answer. It should be clear to Kim by now that his parade of provocations is not benefiting his country. His bellicose behavior in 2013, for example, worsened his relationships with China, South Korea, and the United States simultaneously; and in the recent crisis, all he earned was a halt to mocking loudspeaker broadcasts. But Kim is not exactly known for his pragmatism or diplomacy.
Kim’s intentions may become clearer next month, when the North is expected to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party by conducting a nuclear test and launching a new intercontinental missile. But China, South Korea and the U.S. — whose policies toward North Korea are now more closely aligned than ever — should not simply wait to see what happens. They should initiate a dialogue with the North and take steps to dissuade Kim from continuing on his path of antagonism.
The third new development on the peninsula is a growing awareness among North Koreans of their country’s dire situation. At this point, the shift is most apparent among North Korean soldiers in the DMZ, for whom the South’s recent broadcasts were highly demoralizing. Today’s young soldiers represent the so-called Jangmadang (“black market”) generation that came of age under the marketization process that followed the massive famine in the mid-1990s. Exposed to South Korean movies, music and other products, they recognize the yawning gap between their government’s propaganda and the country’s grim reality. The South’s loudspeaker broadcasts drove the point home.
As the marketization process continues, soon it won’t be just the soldiers who see through the regime’s propaganda. The time for bottom-up change in the North may not be far off.
This opens up a new policy option for the West: impelling North Korea to dial back its foreign and security policy by deepening its economic and social engagement with the rest of the world. The benefits for the North would drastically change the regime’s strategic calculus, particularly concerning nuclear weapons.
International linkages — or, rather, sanctions that blocked the benefits of such linkages — were vital to Libya’s decision to denuclearize and Iran’s willingness to reach an agreement with world powers regarding its nuclear program. Sanctions have been less effective in North Korea, largely because the population did not know what it was missing.
Similarly, growing connections between groups within the Soviet bloc and the West played a major role in bringing about the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The accords represented an effort to improve East-West relations during the Cold War, and included an emphasis on human rights. Most important, they achieved the kind of sustained engagement that is badly needed on the Korean Peninsula today.
The aftermath of the August crisis may be the moment to think seriously about how to balance continued sanctions on North Korea with deeper economic and social ties. Without such an approach, North and South Korea could, before long, be locked in another military standoff. The next one may not end so well as the last.
Yoon Young-kwan, a former foreign minister of South Korea is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. © Project Syndicate, 2015.