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Commentary: North Korea is frustrated we are not taking it seriously

The latest aggression by Pyongyang in destroying a facility used for talks with South Korea shows that it is frustrated, says Professor Robert Kelly.

Commentary: North Korea is frustrated we are not taking it seriously

A view of an explosion of a joint liaison office with South Korea in border town Kaesong, North Korea in this picture supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 16, 2020. KCNA via REUTERS

BUSAN: On Tuesday (Jun 16), North Korea destroyed a facility used for inter-Korean dialogue. The conference space was located in the Kaesong Industrial Zone in Kaesong, North Korea.

The Kaesong Industrial Zone was set up as an effort at détente almost 20 years ago. It was an export processing zone in North Korea for South Korean companies to use low-cost North Korean labour. 

It was shut down in 2016 over inter-Korean tensions. But the current government in South Korea has sought to re-open it to again promote détente. 

In the interim, the North and South have used some of the Zone’s space for inter-Korean talks. It was this space which the North Koreans destroyed.


The motivations for North Korea’s behaviour are, of course, opaque. We understand little about how it makes foreign policy decisions. 

We have a poor sense of which players are the most important and whether supreme leader Kim Jong Un himself personally agrees to every provocative action such as this. 

It is also true that North Korea routinely provokes South Korea. Provocations along the demilitarized zone and the Yellow Sea border are quite common. 

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These rarely spin out of control and have never led to war since the original conflict back in 1950. 

It is highly unlikely that yesterday’s events are a build-up toward a major clash. 

The North Koreans would lose a war, badly, and its elites know this. Yesterday’s site demolition is more properly seen in the context of a long history of North Korean provocations of the South, typically to express displeasure over something, demand concessions or both.

Ostensibly, North Korea claims it destroyed this facility to protest leafletting by anti-North Korean groups in South Korea. Anti-communist groups in the South have for decades assembled near the demilitarised zone to place anti-Northern leaflets into balloons to float over the border. 

The balloons sometimes include flash-keys with huge amounts of information, or candy to attract children.

The North has demanded for years that the South Korean government block this practice. This is tricky.

Activists have regularly released balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border to North Korea AFP/JUNG YEON-JE

As a liberal democracy, the South Korean government faces basic constitutional constraints on limiting free speech and assembly. Similarly, acting against these groups looks disturbingly like importing North Korean censorship demands into South Korea. 

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The current South Korean government has tried to limit this practice. These fights often wind up in court.

But the North has experienced leafletting for a long time without such a fiery response. So this seems more like a pretext. The real signal is almost certainly wider displeasure with the course of inter-Korean and North Korean-American negotiations in recent years.

In 2017, South Koreans elected Moon Jae-in, a president more dovish on North Korea than any of his predecessors. 


Similarly in the United States, President Donald Trump became America’s most dovish president ever on North Korea after he pulled back from his “fire and fury” posture of 2017. 

Trump was willing to meet Kim Jong Un personally, an enormously prestigious concession to a tiny, economically backward country loathed by many in the world. Moon too met with Kim.

All this created sky-high expectations in Pyongyang for a grand bargain and perhaps even North Korean normalisation into world politics. 

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Never before had North Korea’s two primary opponents been led by such détente-seeking, engagement-friendly doves. Even better, Moon and Trump were in office simultaneously too, creating a uniquely benign leadership constellation in the region.

Further, North Korea had achieved direct nuclear deterrence with the United States by the end of 2017. It successfully developed both a functional, large nuclear warhead and an intercontinental ballistic missile to deliver it to the US mainland.

If North Korea was to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, now would be the time. 

Despite all these favourables however, engagement and détente came to naught. 

Trump turned out to be an inconsistent and ill-prepared negotiator. 

Much as the rest of the world has come to learn about the US president, the North Koreans discovered that Trump did not really care much about the details of a deal and did not do much to fight for it bureaucratically in Washington.

Trump was inadequately prepare for his three meetings with Kim, so his negotiating positions were easily hijacked by hawkish advisors around him. 

“I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done. So this isn’t a question of preparation, it’s a question of whether or not people want it to happen, and we’ll know that very quickly,” Trump told reporters at the White House before his summit with Kim in Singapore in 2018.

Trump could also not see to the the task of changing the deeply anti-North Korean consensus of the US foreign policy community.

US President Donald Trump (R) meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) at the start of their summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018 -- two years on, Pyongyang says any hopes for better ties have turned to feelings of "despair" AFP/SAUL LOEB

His primary interest seemed to be in the symbolism of it all – shaking Kim’s hand, walking around inside North Korea, using the photos and imagery in his re-election campaign.

In the end, Trump’s refusal to read-up on North Korea, nuclear weaponry or ballistic missile technology; his unwillingness to push Congress to make counter-concessions to the North; his disinterest in giving serious speeches on the North Korea to change public and elite opinion – undercut his effort.

This is very similar to Trump’s failed efforts to fix US infrastructure, health care or policing - he just has not put in the necessary effort.

Moon was significantly more serious about engagement than Trump. His career for decades has focused on a breakthrough with the North. Moon comes from the leftist party in South Korea, where North Korea is frequently seen as a wayward, brotherly Korean state rather than a rogue state.


North Korea, in this milieu, has been radicalised by the wall of global hostility it meets, and we should engage it and bring it in from the cold to moderate it.

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Critical to this is rolling back the global sanctions regime around it and increasing ties with the more successful South. Détente, ideally, would lead to inter-Korean reconciliation, a reduction in military tension and perhaps some liberalisation in the North. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks on the occasion of the third anniversary of his inauguration at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on May 10, 2020. (Photo: Kim Min-Hee/Pool via REUTERS)

This agenda enjoys robust support on the South Korean left, but scepticism on the right and centre. The US, South Korea’s treaty ally, is also sceptical, and South Koreans are strongly supportive of the US alliance. 

This puts Moon in a tight spot. He really wants to reach out to the North. He wants inter-Korean projects and exchange plus military retrenchment along the border. 

But he is constrained by global sanctions at the United Nations (UN)-level - which South Korea voted for in the past - and US opposition.

Trump flirted with the notion of sanctions relief but never consistently stood behind it, nor found that North Korea offered enough to justify such a rollback. 

Moon has been struggling against these constraints ever since – trying to find a way to engage the North without violating UN sanctions or upsetting the Americans. 

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The North Korean response to all this back-and-forth over the last few years has been growing anger and disenchantment.

As the Trump track collapsed under his inconsistency and erraticness, North Korea has increasingly emphasised the Moon track. 

Its state media has argued that Moon should forge ahead with inter-Korean ties regardless of what “imperialist foreigners” - the US, Japan and the West - have to say.

Despite Moon’s obvious desire to do so, he cannot. He will not risk an open breach with the Americans. The response of public opinion and the conservative media would be crushing.

So try as he might, Moon ultimately has been able to offer the North very little beyond positive rhetoric.

The North has increasingly attacked him for bowing to foreigners, and this week’s facility destruction was threatened earlier as a part of those complaints.

Now we must watch to see if the North will undo what little does remain of Moon’s earlier outreach efforts.

Robert Kelly is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.

Source: CNA/ml


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