North Korea and South Korea: Will the Reopening of Kaesong Spillover?

17 Aug, 2013    ·   4089

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra on the goodwill re-established and its impact on the forward movement in inter-Korean relations

After seven rounds of talks between North and South Korea on the issue of reopening of Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), finally both parties agreed on a five-point agreement. There has been concord to restart the KIC and both have pledged not to close it in future in any untoward circumstances. Both the countries have also agreed to invite more international companies to the KIC.

It is indeed a forward movement in the inter-Korean relations as the goodwill re-established between them may spill over to other contentious issues between them. It may prove to be the real start of the ‘trustpolitik’ announced by the South Korean President Park Geun-hye in which a trust process intended to be started between the two unfriendly regimes of the Korean peninsula. Soon after the positive results from the talks, President Park Geun-hye proposed that both the countries should now take up other issues such as issue of divided family and establishment of a peace-park in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the border. It would be interesting to see how North Korea responds to her proposal, though it would definitely be difficult for North Korea to neglect her proposal.

The success in the recent talks does not necessarily mean that North Korea has fundamentally changed its position on the inter-Korea relations or on its nuclear and missile programmes. It would take more time to bring in any fundamental shift in North Korean policy and preferences. However, if the inter-Korea relations move in right direction, it would not be as difficult as it is assumed.

In the several rounds of talks on KIC, it was clear that South Korea wanted a categorical assurance from North Korea that it would not unilaterally close the KIC in any circumstances. In a way, it was an insistence on North Korea to acknowledge its mistake in withdrawing North Korean workers from the KIC unilaterally in April this year.

North Korea was quite keen to restart the functioning at the KIC for two reasons. First, China, reportedly suggested North Korea to be more responsible and constructive in its dealing with South Korea. During the recent Park Geun-hye’s state visit to China, it was construed from her enthusiastic welcome in Beijing that China is not happy with provocative behaviour of North Korea. Second, the KIC has been an important source of foreign money for North Korea and it was quite keen to restart the facilities to continue the flow of foreign currency. For the same reason, even though South Korea adopted a firm stand of the issue, North Korea kept insisting on talks.

The outcomes of the talks are, in fact, success for South Korea but it replication would be possible only when South Korea becomes more generous in talks. Even though Chinese pressure on North Korea is there to engage South Korea, other issues (expect Kumgang Moutain Tourist Project) do not have any direct financial benefits involved for North Korea and there is doubt that North Korea would have similar compromising stand on them. Moreover, South Korea also needs to remember that it is not a bad idea to look at the future and does not seek a total surrender and defeat of North Korea. It would be a bad diplomacy to insist that North Korea should accept its mistake openly and then only progress could be made. In any bilateral negotiation, both parties should provide each other some take-away to show its domestic public opinion. It is good that in the final round of talks South Korea showed glimpse of this win-win diplomacy. It conceded to make it a joint pledge to continue the smooth functioning of the KIC rather than insisting on the North Korean assurance only.

In future, for both the countries, it would be better to take up less controversial issues in first round such as issue of divided families, making a peace park at the DMZ and re-starting of Kumgang Tourist Project which was closed in 2008. Perhaps, later the more contentious issues such as nuclear and missile programmes of North Korea could be discussed. If South Korea keeps a futuristic and considerate policy against North Korea and remain connected with China in its dealing with North Korea, it would not be difficult to make progress in the inter-Korean relations. It seems that the US policy of ‘strategic patience’ toward North Korea is, in fact, having no proactive policy and it is South Korea, which is supposed to take-up initiative. Similarly, China has shown sufficient support to South Korean policy without fully abandoning its old ally North Korea. So, the further moves of South Korea would be of the utmost importance in the inter-Korean relations.

The trust politik inherently needs an initiation of trust from the host country towards the target country. It cannot be assumed that the process could be other way round. It is time to be cautiously optimistic about Northeast Asian security situation and wish that the process further moves in right direction in a mutually accommodative and more inclusive manner.