After marathon talks from Aug. 23 to 25, the two Koreas struck a six-point agreement to defuse military tension and increase inter-Korean cooperation. Under the agreement, South Korea halted anti-N. Korean loudspeaker broadcasts that made N. Korea bristle, while North Korea cancelled its semi-war status and withdrew its threat to shoot the loudspeakers. The two Koreas agreed to hold working-level talks to resume reunions of families separated since the Korean War. Despite some positive signs for improved inter-Korean relations on the heels of the talks, there is still lingering skepticism that it will take some time to verify Pyongyang’s sincerity and willingness to carry out the agreement.
Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Prof. Lee, who teaches on Korea and U.S.-East Asia relations, has actively been involved in exposing the cruelties and contradictions of the successive North Korean regimes through his testimony before U.S. Congress and frequent contributions to major US media outlets such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post as well as appearances on ABC, CBS, NPR, BBC, among others.
RFA: What do you make of the agreement that came at the eleventh hour of the three-day negotiations on Aug. 25?
Lee: The agreement to stand down and work toward greater civilian exchange between the two sides has defused tension for now. Certainly, in the short-term, the agreement will reduce the perception of inter-Korean tension and increase the illusion of a reasonable North Korea, one with which Seoul can do business. In the long term, however, it will do little to deter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, its threatening posture against South Korea, or its extreme repression of its own people. North Korea showed once again that it does not admit to culpability for attacks on the South or offer a “heartfelt apology” to South Korea.
RFA: According to the second clause of the agreement, the North expressed ‘regret’ over the recent landmine explosions that occurred on the southern side of the DMZ, but failed to specify who was responsible for the explosion, which is actually North Korea. Short of a full ‘apology’, do you think there is any sincerity on the part of North Korea?
Lee: I’m afraid it’s a non-apology, devoid of subject-verb-object agreement. It’s the kind of fake apology that Japanese Prime Minister Abe is prone to offering to Koreans and Chinese for Japan’s war crimes. Hence, this is neither a concession made by the North nor a victory won by the South. At the same time, it was unrealistic that North Korea would issue a straight-forward apology for planting the mines or its artillery fire on Aug 20, for North Korea has never apologized to the South on the record. Kim Il Sung purportedly apologized to KCIA chief Lee Hu-Rak in 1972 for the North Korean commando raid in January 1968. But that cannot be verified. There have been other instances of “regret” expressed, such as in the wake of the show of force by the ROK and US following the “axe murder incident” on August 18, 1976. But, again, that was no real apology. And North Korea to date has vociferously denied culpability for major provocations and acts of terrorism like the 1983 Rangoon bombing, the 1987 Korean Airliner bombing, the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo, or the murder of Park Wang-Ja in July 2008 at Mt. Kumgang.
RFA: What’s also missing from the agreement is North Korea’s promise not to repeat similar provocations in the future. Seoul said Pyongyang promised it “verbally.” Do you think this kind of verbal promise by Pyongyang is enough to prevent any such provocations?
Lee: No. Even a pledge written in blood is no guarantee against future provocations or lethal attacks, for North Korea has violated, without fail, every single major international agreement it has signed—both the letter and spirit of the agreement. From the Korean War Armistice of 1953 to the inter-Korean agreements in 1991 and 1992, the 1994 Geneva Accord, 2005 and 2007 Six-Party accords to even the highly favorable June 15, 2000, Joint Statement…you name it, North Korea has violated it.
RFA: As a result of the talks, there is some hope that North Korea will refrain from making further provocations in the future. Nonetheless, it’s most people’s educated guess that they will conduct another nuclear test or test long-range ballistic missiles on Oct. 10, the 70th founding day of the Workers’ Party. What is your take on this?
Lee: Since 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of Kim Jong Un’s grandpa’s party, also known as the Workers’ Party of Korea, the young Kim has a compelling need to mark it with a bang, as he did 2012, the 100th anniversary of grandpa Kim Il Sung’s birth. That year, a failed long-range ballistic missile test came on April 13, followed by the successful one on December 12. Kim Jong Un followed through with a nuclear test on February 12, 2013, at a time of leadership transition in all the capitals of his neighborhood. From Kim’s perspective, these were all highly “rational” moves that raised his status as a major thorn in Northeast Asia even as opprobrium poured forth from the neighborhood—opprobrium that invariably fades out with time. Pyongyang is most likely to resort to a similar provocation before the year’s end despite the latest intense talks with South Korea. Casting a smokescreen by making a fake overture for talks before a provocation is a staple of the Pyongyang Playbook.
RFA: Despite the apparent lack of tangible progress in the lead up to the final day of negotiations, the North Korean delegation sat out the marathon talks instead of walking away. Do you have any clue on why the North did so?
Lee: The biggest takeaway for the North from these extended talks is taming Seoul; that is, planting in the mind of the South Korean leadership the illusion of being able to get through to Pyongyang. With the next weapons test, North Korea’s neighbors will issue condemnation and call for another U.N. Security Council resolution. But, after a decent interval of, say, three months, Seoul will feel inclined to resume talks with Pyongyang, for it now has the experience of “getting through” to Pyongyang. This new dynamic in inter-Korean relations will favor the Kim regime, for increased economic and civil exchange programs between the North and South invariably involve money transfer from the South to the North. The question to ask is: Which side wants more to talk to the other side? The North or the South? Clearly, the latter. It’s a plain dilemma, a built-in handicap when a democratically elected leader facing a five-year, single-term presidency tries to deal with a dictator for life.
RFA: Given Pyongyang’s determination to conclude the talks, don’t you think Kim Jong Un wanted some sort of ‘political solution’ from the start rather than going to an actual war when they ordered a semi-war readiness? In other words, does it suggest Kim is politically savvy and cunning enough to manipulate this kind of crisis situation for his own purpose?
Lee: We all tend to underestimate North Korea and, when it comes to Kim Jong Un, it’s hard not to patronize him, as young, cruel, impetuous, and plain weird as he is. However, when it comes to propaganda, strategy, and choreography, North Korea is world-class. We should not underestimate the Kim regime or assume Kim is acting like a child who is prone to throwing a temper tantrum. Moreover, North Korea is not suicidal. The regime harbors no jihadist dreams. It will not start an all-out war under the present military dynamics despite what it says. In short, Kim Jong Un is following the Pyongyang Playbook built by his grandfather and father, applying pressure on Seoul and Washington through periodic provocations with the view toward reaping major concessions.
RFA: There is some consensus that North Korea felt itself most vulnerable to the psychological war as exemplified by Seoul’s anti-North Korean loudspeaker broadcasts that prompted the North to issue a semi-war alert, after all. Do you agree?
Lee: One takeaway for Seoul from last week’s events is that anti-North Korea propaganda makes Pyongyang bristle. Applied in greater force and scale, propaganda may be a more powerful deterrent than force. Pyongyang rightfully fears the precedent of Seoul responding asymmetrically with information warfare, just as it genuinely feared the U.S. Treasury Department’s financial sanctions in 2005 and 2006. This reaffirms that the Kim regime responds to pressure against its political contradictions and financial vulnerabilities. After all, it sought talks with Seoul. Just imagine if Seoul and Washington vastly increased funding for radio broadcast and other information operations into North Korea, as they well should. In an Orwellian world, “War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” In the surreal world of the DPRK, the past 62 years of de facto peace in Korea is war, a life of extreme servitude to the state is freedom, and national strength is preserved by keeping the people ignorant of the outside world. Informing and educating the North Korean people is not only the right thing to do, but also a potentially great leverage vis-à-vis Pyongyang. Moreover, it can save lives, too.
RFA: Under the agreement, the two Koreas will hold Red Cross talks in early September to resume separated family reunions. Can we take it as a positive sign for the improvement of inter-Korean relations?
Lee: Yes, it’s a positive sign—for the North, that is. While I shall never belittle the personal meaning of the family reunions for the individuals involved in these one-time, chaperoned meetings, on a state level, South Korea really should demand more of the North when it comes to these emotional family reunions. For example, demand that the family members be allowed to send and receive letters and occasionally make telephone calls to each other. Otherwise, Seoul will not pay for these meetings. This would not exactly be a rigorous political demand like asking Pyongyang to disarm. Again, which side is more dependent on these reunion events or eager to pay for them and hold them? It’s obviously the South.
RFA: South Korea has been pursuing the so-called trustpolitik towards North Korea since the inauguration of President Park Geun-hye in Feb. 2013, which basically seeks to establish mutually binding expectations based on global norms. Some say Park’s policy paid off in the sense that its principled practical approach led North Korea to make some concessions during the three-day talks. Do you believe Park’s trustpolitik really worked this time?
Lee: A real principled North Korea policy would entail at least some of the following: Increased funding for raising human rights issues and also transmitting information into the North; call on Kim Jong Un to dismantle the gulags and downsize the hyper-inflated military; demand on the Kim regime that it grant the people the right to life—instead of, as the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry human rights report charges, perpetrating the “inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” The Park administration has yet to make any of such basic demands. It should use its moral and financial leverage and call on Pyongyang to grant the long-suffering North Korean people basic freedoms like the freedom of speech, information, assembly, religion, movement, and the freedom to eat. Any improvement in any of these areas would signal a degree of trust built. Seoul should bet on such real indicators of change in Pyongyang instead of betting on North Korea’s repeated lies.