Tensions Update III: Talks

August 23, 2015 1:15 AM

Sunday August 23, 1 AM Eastern time.

The events surrounding the onset of the North-South talks—about to enter their second round as this goes to press—suggest strongly that it was North Korea that stood down.

After setting a 48-hour ultimatum for the South to stop its propaganda broadcasts on Thursday, it was Pyongyang that reached out several hours before the deadline to propose talks (Yonhap). This initiative occurred in the wake of a statement by the South that it had no intention of stopping the broadcasts.

Negotiations then ensued over representation at the talks, a sticking point in past North-South meetings. The South insisted that the talks be lead by someone close to the top leadership, and proposed Hwang Pyong-so in particular. You can’t get closer to the top of the North Korean leadership than Hwang, who is not only head of the KPA’s General Political Bureau but a key node in Kim Jong Un’s communications with the military and military-industrial complex and with influence over military appointments (Michael Madden’s profile on North Korea Leadership Watch is a year old, but still relevant; Ankit Panda updates for the Diplomat; South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-jin headed the South Korean delegation).

But it was not only the top of the card that was in play; Kim Yang-gon, long head of the United Front Department, was also at the table with Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo as his counterpart. This pairing was significant as well. In June 2013, North Korea abruptly called off high-level inter-Korean talks when the South insisted that the then-Minister of Unification meet with Kim Yang-gon as his equal; the North claimed that Kim was of higher rank. Also of interest: this North Korean delegation is exactly the one that effectively snubbed President Park last October when visiting Seoul for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. Rather than exploit the opportunity for more substantive talks, it quickly became clear that the delegation was interested largely in photo-ops with North Korean athletes and did not carry any substantive messages.

Underlying the diplomatic to-and-fro has been some complex military signaling, which the South and the US also appear to have gotten the better of. The North has always complained about the US-ROK joint exercises, and made a risable effort to raise the issue to the UN Security Council. Now, Kim Jong Un actually had somewhat more to worry about given the context of the August 4 mine attack.

The forcefulness of the South Korean response also appears to have come as a surprise. We still do not know if the South Korean counterstrike sought to do damage and failed or was—like the North Korean shelling—largely a signal. But the counterstrike showed that the South’s effort to toughen up the deterrent in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do shellings of 2010 had some teeth.

This in turn raises interesting questions about the advantages the North purportedly holds by its forward deployment of forces. The standard argument is that the South is deterred by the proximity of Northern artillery to Seoul, permitting Pyongyang room for mischief. The Korea Times broke the story that the North is moving 76.2-millimeter artillery into the DMZ--in obvious violation of the armistice--and perhaps moving forces just beyond the DMZ as well. But in addition to the ROK artillery counterstrike, the US and ROK airforces flew a joint show-of-force mission on Saturday with eight F-15 and F-16 fighters. Which side is really more exposed?

In the end, who blinked is not the interesting question; the question is what--if anything--can be made of a bad situation. That the talks went for ten hours underscores that addressing the August 4 mine incident will not be easy. The South will naturally want an apology and assurances it will not happen again; the North has denied its involvement at the highest level. One exit ramp for the North would be to package the difficult military issue with a broader diplomatic effort to jumpstart President Park's Trustpolitik. But the South isn’t—and shouldn’t—be in a giving mood; it should bring a list of asks that goes beyond halting provocations. At a minimum this would mean a restart of family reunions. A more ambitious agenda would include confidence-building measures along the DMZ and discussion of economic reforms and even the nuclear issue.

One final speculation has to do with the internal politics of this episode in the North. Although the regime has an array of instruments for controlling the domestic political narrative, the loudspeakers, balloons, leaflets and other Southern efforts to penetrate the regime’s information wall have clearly hit a nerve. But more interesting is how this incident is viewed among the North Korean political and military elite. Kim Jong Un is always only a step away from an “emperor with no clothes” moment. It may be the domestic as opposed to international miscalculations of this episode that prove the most significant going forward.

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