South Korean president Park Geun-hye came to office last year pledging a policy of trustpolitik designed to promote inter-Korean reconciliation through principled engagement while holding North Korea to account. The Economist suggested the policy should be named “distrustpolitik,” asserting that “the south does not trust the north to keep its promises; the north does not trust the south to follow through on its admonitions.” Both sides took the measure of each other last year during the closure and reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the industrial park in North Korea that combines North Korean labor with South Korean capital to produce goods to export internationally. That experience provides a valuable lesson for inter-Korean relations.
The failure and resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex last summer imposed high financial and political costs on both sides. But the outcome of negotiations to revive the project reveals that inter-Korean progress comes not based on trust, but on the establishment of joint structures that require cooperation to operate. Kaesong was revived because both sides agreed to jointly operate the project together as stakeholders rather than negotiating through proxies as adversaries. While it is premature to declare the new Kaesong effort a success, joint cooperation is the only practical way forward.
But despite getting Kaesong back on track, North Korea quickly reverted to its old ways, unilaterally suspending planned family reunions last September and criticizing President Park personally for denigrating North Korea’s failed policies. Throughout the North’s provocations, fluctuations, and machinations, Park’s steadiness in the face of Kim Jong-un’s recklessness has won her over 50 percent job approval among South Koreans, despite the absence of any real improvement in inter-Korean relations. Through its over-the-top behavior, North Korea cut off its nose but saved its face.
Kim Jong-un has opened round two with his New Year’s appeal for better inter-Korean relations. Park reciprocated in her own New Year’s press conference by affirming her desire for inter-Korean dialogue. Beyond the rhetorical hat-tip to reconciliation, the political chasm between making and keeping such New Year’s resolutions looms as large as ever. Park Geun-hye’s references to Korean reunification as a “jackpot” cannot be reassuring to the North; Kim Jong-un’s words of conciliation toward Seoul mean little on the heels of North Korea’s threats only a week prior to viciously attack Seoul without prior warning.
Despite deep mutual mistrust, the two sides have traded public proposals and counterproposals as though there is a deal to be done. Park proposed resumption of dialogue on family reunions, a proposal that North Korea quickly rejected. The DPRK National Defense Commission countered on January 16 with a three-point proposal to end mutual provocation and slander, cease military acts against each other, and to request that the Unites States and ROK “not to resort to reckless acts of bringing dangerous nuclear strike means of the US” to Korea, a reference to last spring’s nuclear capable B-2 and B-52 overflights of the Korean peninsula. South Korea’s Ministry of National Unification promptly rejected the proposal, citing North Korea’s record of using “camouflaged peace offensives” as a prelude to further North Korean provocations.
One week later, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun published a rare front-page “open letter” from North Korea’s National Defense Commission on inter-Korean relations. The letter reiterated the “sincerity” of its January 16 announcement, stating that the DPRK, based on its “determination to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and unity,” has already unilaterally decided to end slander against South Korea. The letter then called upon the South to reciprocate with a military confidence building measure of its own.
The National Defense Commission’s public letter is striking both because it is so out of character for North Korea to offer unilateral concessions of any sort and because it illustrates how deep a hole Pyongyang has dug for itself through its past intransigence. Changing the pattern of an adversarial relationship through implementing reciprocal unilateral measures is a standard means by which to ease tensions and overcome enmity. But like the boy who cried wolf, North Korea may find that at this stage there is little inclination by South Korea to respond, trustpolitik notwithstanding. South Korea reiterated its proposal to resume talks on separated family reunions, and North Korea has little choice but to make a down payment on tension reduction and accept South Korea’s offer.
In the absence of trust, the two Koreas have an opportunity to apply experience from last summer’s negotiations over Kaesong by jointly managing new channels for implementing inter-Korean cooperation. The creation of a joint committee for managing inter-Korean family reunions would be a tangible outcome and a potentially significant first step toward replacing inter-Korean mistrust-based tensions with evidence of sustained cooperation. And if the effort fails, Park will only be following in the footsteps of her father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who justified his own landmark inter-Korean declaration with Kim Jong-un’s grandfather in 1972 by saying that “as long as you can touch an opponent with at least one hand, you can tell whether he will attack.”