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Title What’s happening on the Korean Peninsula for 2014: An objective view Date 2014.01.20

Tong KIm

Attach What is likely to happen on the Korean Peninsula in 2014.doc
Both President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and First Chairman of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong-un have spoken of their policies on inter-Korean relations at the beginning of the year 2014 with emphasis on the importance of national unification. Soon after their new year’s messages, the DPRK’s National Defense Commission (NDC) made a comprehensive proposal for improvement of relations between the North and the South on January 16, only to be quickly rejected by the South the next day. This inter-Korean exchange of mixed messages has happened this month as a prelude to many more events of significance to take place in the months ahead. 
The North Korean NDC had proposed that both sides “suspend mutual slander as of the end of January, cancel hostile military activities against each other, including the exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, take mutual measures to prevent nuclear calamity and resolve all inter-Korean issues, starting with the meeting of the separated families.” And Seoul’s ministry of unification rejected the North Korean proposal insisting that it is the North, not the South, that has practiced slander; the annual US-ROK military exercise is defensive in nature and belongs to the sovereign right of the Republic of Korea; and the North should first show its responsibility for the explosion of the Cheonan navy vessel and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island, and other provocations. The South said that the North should take substantive action for denuclearization.
The major element of Pyongyang’s proposal obviously unacceptable to the South must have been the demand for the cancellation of the joint US-ROK military drills especially at a time when the South is seriously concerned about possible provocations by an unstable regime of the North in the aftermath of the ruthless execution of the once powerful Chang Sung-taek.  On the other hand, Pyongyang had probably not expected the South to accept the proposal to cancel this year’s exercise. Even in the best days of inter-Korean relations in 2000, Kim Jong-il, then the leader of the North, recognized that every military had regular training requirements, saying that he would have no problem if the South and the US had not been training jointly against the North.[1]
The North Koreans have always complained about the annual combined US-ROK military exercises as a practice drill for a nuclear attack against their country. The war assets deployed in these exercises are formidable and very scary to them.  Last year, the US forces brought B-52 strategic bombers and F-22 stealth fighters to Korea, and deployed nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers to the seas around the peninsula. In response, North Korea outpoured belligerent statements and verbal threats of war.  Every year the KPA troops are also compelled to conduct their exercises that are costly to the fuel-scarce North.  
When the exercises begin in late February or early March 2014, Pyongyang would again react resentfully with provocative threats possibly even beyond last year’s level. Some hardliners in Seoul believe that the North is seeking for a pretext for new provocations to launch in Seoul’s rejection of its proposal.  However, in the view of many objective observers with some sense of sanity, the Kim Jong-un regime is now quite stable and it is less likely to set off a premeditated attack of any scale against the South Korean forces, on land or sea, as Kim Jong-un’s two priorities are to strengthen the stability of his rule and improve the economy. The North needs improved relations with the South from an economic perspective, to get South Korean assistance to rebuild its ailing economy.
Although sketchy in the proposal, Pyongyang also suggested that the nuclear issue be discussed with Seoul to avoid a nuclear calamity, a topic which the North Koreans had long insisted was an issue between the North and the United States. If the issue were ever taken as an agenda for inter-Korean discussion, the North would probably be ready to tell the South that their nuclear weapons are not meant for use against the South but only against foreign invasion.  The South in turn could persuade the North on the cost of its nuclear program, which includes economic sanctions and opportunities lost, with emphasis on the benefits of denuclearization.  The South would have an opportunity to convince the skeptic North Koreans of the consistent commitment of the South to enlist international support for economic assistance to the North.  Now that the North Korean proposal has been discarded, it is not sure when the North Koreans may come back with a similar suggestion on the nuclear issue.    
Although the NDC’s suggestion regarding slander was not a new idea, it seemed to have its own merit in view of the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un himself was the first to make the suggestion.  In his new year’s message to the South, he spoke of the need to suspend mutual slanders that are “useless and detrimental to national unity and reconciliation.” Kim Jong-un also made a suggestion to create a “favorable environment” for improvement of inter-Korean relations. Kim’s peace gesture was also dismissed by Seoul on the ground of skepticism and Seoul’s mistrust of the Kim Jong-un regime.   
The unification ministry was right when it said the Seoul government does not slander the Pyongyang regime by name calling or otherwise, as Pyongyang’s propagandists do to the South Korean president or other groups whom they do not like.  However, several civil organizations, largely consisting of anti-North Korean conservatives and defectors from the North, send leaflets criticizing Kim Jong-un and its ruling system, and sometimes burn Kim Jong-un in effigy in Seoul with wide press coverage.  There is no good way of measuring how effective these civilian psychological warfare activities are on the general populace of North Korea.  Yet, it is clear that the North Korean authorities are sensitive to these activities as they directly attack what they refer to as the “dignity of the supreme leader”.  Furthermore, the North believes these activities are carried out with encouragement or endorsement of the government of the South.
The South has turned down two major proposals of the North to improve inter-Korean relations this year.  The North has rejected Seoul’s call for holding another meeting of the separated families, which the South insists should not be linked to the issue of reopening Mt. Geumgang tourism.  Sometimes, it appears as if both sides know nothing would happen when they make proposals to each other.  The speed of Seoul’s review of the North Korean proposals is so fast that a negative response was available in the standard template.  Not long ago, Minister of Unification Yoo Gil-jae told an audience of the Graduate University of North Korean Studies at the Seoul Westin Hotel that his ministry is solely responsible for all statements it issues. Mr. Yoo was rejecting the public notion that the ministry does not stand on its own ground because of the strong influence of the Blue House with the super-national security director Kim Jang-soo in charge.  He added though that a security team meeting presided over by Kim Jang-soo, is held frequently to discuss the North Korean issues.  The team, called the national security council, consists of the ministers of defense, unification, foreign affairs, and the director of National Intelligence Service, and a few others.
In a series of her press conferences in the last two weeks, President Park Geun-hye also kept sending a mixed message to the North. Her message was: South Korea is ready to work to build trust and cooperate with the North economically, if the North change its behavior and take meaningful steps toward denuclearization.  The Park government believes the North Korean nuclear program is the biggest obstacle to inter-Korean relations and unification.  President Park would meet with the North Korean leader, if such a meeting would be helpful to a meaningful improvement in inter-Korean relations and to promotion of peace on the peninsula.  She believes that the Kim Jong-un regime has become more unstable and more unpredictable since the execution of Chang Sung-taek.
Conscious of defense minister Kim Kwang-jin’s warning that the North might launch provocations from January to March, she assures that the South is ready to meet any possible development and to resolutely reprise any provocations.  She has also talked about the benefits of unification as “a jackpot” to pay for the unification cost.  The president did not say how or when unification might come. Her pronounced policy for unification is not to absorb the North but to lay the foundation for peaceful unification during her term, with four more years remaining.  Whenever there was a major political development in the North, many in Seoul and Washington have thought of a sudden change or collapse that might provide an opportunity for unification under South Korean terms.
In the wake of the brutal execution of Chang Sung-taek, there have appeared bolder predictions of an early demise of Kim Jong-un’s “reign of terror.” However, there is still weak or little evidence for a possible collapse of the North Korean regime. President Park was right when said, “Nobody in the world can say exactly how the North Korean situation will develop or what actions North Korea will take. That’s why we have to be prepared for all possibilities.”  In this regard, South Korea and the United States have been working for some time on developing and refining a contingency plan for the collapse scenarios, which have been studied for twenty years now but none of which has happened yet.  
Some Chinese and South Korean pundits have increasingly argued that North Korea, especially under the rule of the young, reckless Kim Jong-un, has become a strategic burden, rather than an asset, to China’s core interest in the peninsula. They go as far as speculating that China would give up North Korea in favor of South Korea’s absorption of the North.  They also point out the friendly relationship between the leaders of China and South Korea, Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, is a good prospect for Beijing’s support for Seoul on the issue of unification.  There has also been a great deal of speculation that the United States and China were working together on what each of them, or the two together, would do in case of a sudden change or collapse in the North. 
Nevertheless, there is no evidence known for US-Chinese cooperation on the question of a North Korean collapse, or for ROK-Chinese cooperation on this matter.  In principle,   Beijing still maintains its support for peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula, while Washington has recently developed a more pro-South Korean position to support the peaceful unification that the South Korean people would want.  Of course, depending on how the North Korean situation may develop over time, including the denuclearization issue, the United States and China would also change their policy. Despite the tricky and tough Sino-American relationship of “competition and cooperation,” in which Washington is seeking a rebalancing in Asia to deter China’s dominance in the region, the two major powers are on the same page as far as the security and nuclear issues of North Korea are concerned.  Both cooperate on the denuclearization of North Korea and both want to maintain the stability and the status quo on the peninsula.
At some point down the road, South Korea could be driven to a treacherous situation between the clashing interests of the two giants, China and the United States, with both of whom South Korea is having good relations now, economically with China and militarily with the United States.  Many believe that South Korea should maintain a strong military alliance with the United States against North Korean security threats and a good strategic partnership with China for the eventual resolution of unification. In this delicate situation, Japan constitutes an important factor in the US design of a new stable security order for Asia.  Only next to China in term of GDP, Japan can and is providing the United States a great advantage to the rebalancing of Asia.  Washington feels uncomfortable about the history and territorial disputes between Tokyo and Seoul.  The Chinese are on the same side with the South Koreans on the history issue.  In summary, Seoul would have no serious problem between Washington and Beijing, as long as the two big powers do not clash militarily in the region.
Amidst all these juxtapositions, the US-South Korean relationship stands robust. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed after his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-sae on January 7 that the US-ROK alliance is “the linchpin of security and stability of Northeast Asia.”  The two foreign ministers agreed to broaden the discussion of what might develop in North Korea in view of “the recent events that that have taken place” (an obvious reference to Chang’s execution), and to prepare jointly for possible provocations from the North.  Kerry added that there is “not an inch of daylight” between Seoul and Washington on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  However, there was no mention of how and when they would go about the resumption of nuclear talks.  He simply reiterated a stereotype demand that the North Korea “fulfill its international obligation and commitments to denuclearize.”     
In conclusion, at this point in time the North appears to be more eager to concentrate on inter-Korean relations than on its relations with the United States.  Kim Jong-un did not mention in his New Year’s address any interest in discussing the nuclear issue or improving relations with the United States.  It is not clear what the South wants to do to stabilize the security and peace on the peninsula, other than standing tough and ready to respond and punish the North, if it launches any new provocation.  History provides a lesson that the military deterrent has prevented a major war in Korea but not limited provocations.   As for the stability of the Kim Jong-un regime, there is no sign of an immediate collapse.  The South should deal with the North, as it is and as long as it lasts, not as it wishes it to be. 

[1]Kim Jong Il’s conversation with US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in October 2000.