Why inter-Korean detente stagnates

Originally published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta (ru)

Washington's plans exclude reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul

By Alexander Zhebin

Alexander Zhebin
A. Zhebin
Tension on the Korean Peninsula has surged again.

The immediate cause was the 500 000 leaflets, scattered by a north Korean defector who settled in south Korea. The leaflets attack north Korean system and most importantly its Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

On June 9, after three-day deliberation, Pyongyang labelled the action as a hostile act enough to return Seoul into the category "enemy".

The north side decided to stop the operation of communication lines between the two parts of the country including the one between military authorities.

In regard to Pyongyang's accusation of the south Korean authorities' connivance at the actions of a few, but very noisy, organizations of defectors (there are about 30 000 in the south), official Seoul does not deny that there exists problems.

In fact, the leaders of the north and the south held three summits in 2018, pledging to renounce hostile actions, including the use of speakers, leaflets and other propaganda, in the area of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the peninsula.

Now the south Korean authorities are preparing legislation that would allow them to more effectively counter such actions, which have been covered by slogans "freedom of expression", but actually periodically poisoned the atmosphere in bilateral relations at the most inappropriate moments.

The fact is that in these days Pyongyang and Seoul could jointly celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit, the landmark day in their relations. It was held on June 13-15, 2000, in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung, the then heads of state of the two sides. The declaration signed by them at that time cemented as a most important principle the achievement of the reunification of the country "by the forces of the nation itself", which Pyongyang clearly interprets as the prevention of any foreign interference in this process.

Regrettably, neither the second inter-Korean summit in 2007 nor the three more summits in 2018 could advance the Koreans to the goal. They could not even transform the relationship into a sustainable peaceful coexistence between the two sides.

But, the chance to gain the goal would be fewer under the previous two conservative right-wing governments of Ri Myong Bak and Park Geun Hye that hoped for speedy collapse of the north Korean regime, following the US Barack Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience".

Only after the current president Moon Jae-in came to power betting on detente with the DPRK did the situation began to improve. At an unprecedented series of summits, the parties agreed to resume a number of joint projects suspended by the previous authorities of the south side, and took the significant first step in the area of confidence building and military detente in the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

However, it quickly became clear that the reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul was not included in the plans of the United States, which intended to continue the policy of "maximum pressure" on the DPRK until the delivery of its nuclear program on American terms.

The main instrument of this policy is the so-called secondary sanctions against any foreign company or individual who wants to do business with the DPRK, even in the areas not prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions. Thus the US tries to block any cooperation with the DPRK and even humanitarian aid to the country.

On the other hand, Washington has actually arrogated to itself the right to veto any meaningful inter-Korean projects and continues to support in every possible way the "north threat" fear that have remained among the part of the south Korean elite and society since the Cold War, in order to justify its deployment of troops for 70 years and elements of global missile defense system in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.

Moreover, in 2019, the US demanded one-time five-fold increase in Seoul's cost-sharing from 1 billion to 5 billion dollars a year for maintenance of its contingent. These demands alarmed even a number of American politicians and international experts, who saw them as a serious threat to the very existence of military-political alliance between the US and south Korea.

Donald Trump suddenly expressed the idea to invite south Korea to the G7 summit this fall. When inviting "economically successful" south Korea to the "club of the chosen", Washington seems to hint that the entrance ticket should be paid for. It is true they prefer not to warn that all this clearly anti-Chinese venture could cost Seoul tens of billions of dollars if south Korea joins the so-called Economic Prosperity Network urgently organized by Washington, designed to turn off the Chinese economy from the world production and supply chains. The impact on the economy of south Korea, which has more trade with China than with both of the United States and Japan, are quite predictable.

The contradictions between the national interests of Koreans in both the north and the south and the geopolitical ambitions of the US are becoming more and more apparent.

In this regard, attention was drawn to the telephone conversation between the heads of government of the Russian Federation and south Korea in early June, during which "special attention was paid to the prospects for implementing trilateral economic projects with the participation of Russia, south Korea and north Korea".

There seems to be a growing awareness in Seoul that the path to inter-Korean reconciliation is not through Washington but through Moscow, without which south Korea will not establish mutually beneficial ties with the DPRK.

(The author is head of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences.)
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