The details are still emerging, but this incident raises yet again the longstanding issue of North Korea’s extreme behaviour when incidents occur at the inter-Korean border.
The list of inter-Korean altercations is quite long. Most of them are characterised by unnecessarily provocative behaviour by the North and then a disproportionate North Korean use of force.
This pattern of North Korean harshness during incidents is one key reason why the two Koreas remain estranged. It is hard to trust Pyongyang when it routinely responds so violently to small-scale collisions in a highly contested border space.
For example, in 2008, a North Korean soldier shot a South Korean tourist dead. That led to a cessation of South Korean tourism to the North.
In 2015, two South Korean soldiers were maimed by mines laid by the North in shared space along the demilitarised zone.
In 2010, North Korean provocations verged on open warfare. There have also been incidents between the North and US soldiers stationed in South Korea.
WHY THE NORTH KOREANS APOLOGISED
This time the North Koreans apologised. The last time they came close to an apology was in 2008 when they expressed regret over the tourist’s death.
An apology is quite rare, but it is an improvement.
The Northern apology is likely insincere. North Korea likely apologised to avoid sabotaging a friendly government in Seoul.
Most South Korean governments in the past have been hawkish on the North. But the current president of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, is a dovish engager.
Moon seeks to work together with North Korea and has been willing to make concessions to insure cooperation.
When incidents occur under conservative South Korean governments, no apology or even recognition of bad behavior is usually forthcoming.
In other words, Pyongyang hopes its apology keeps pro-Northern politicians in power in the South.
OUTREACH OR APPEASEMENT?
Conservatives have criticised Moon for being too soft on the North, but Moon is politically in a tight spot. His electoral coalition strongly supports outreach to the North.
The South Korean left has long argued that North Korea is not as bad as we think: Its totalitarianism is exaggerated. American belligerence worsens it. And North and South Korea share a national identity which should be the groundwork for reconciliation.
The South Korean left has often willfully overlooked North Korean provocations in the larger interest of détente. It says there is no choice.
South Korean conservatives have damned this as appeasement. The right in Seoul today compares Moon to Neville Chamberlain and insists he is a pawn of Pyongyang.
But if the left adamantly wants engagement, it must simply accept these incidents. North Korea simply does not play by the rules; it launches one provocation after another along the border.
Most South Korean doves have simply given up on calling these out. In 2010, after two particularly severe border incidents, the South Korean left engaged in months of conspiracy theories and denial to avoid pinning the blame on Pyongyang.
The right, by contrast, flirted with airstrikes.
A SOCIETAL CLEAVAGE
There’s no denying this incident has exposed the larger cleavage in South Korea over how to approach the North. The political right and left are very far apart, and this division has worsened during Moon’s tenure.
How to handle North Korea is now probably the deepest political division in the country. Moon has faced months of street protests from conservatives describing him as a toady of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a traitor to South Korean democracy.
In my own experience with South Korean conservatives, I have been amazed at the vitriol and anxiety which Moon has provoked – that he is a closet Marxist, for example.
In the 12 years I have lived in South Korea and worked on the issue of North Korea, I have never seen the division this deep over North Korea policy.
NORTH KOREA NEEDS TO STEP UP
The Moon government has options though to defuse this.
First, it must insist in its many efforts to woo North Korea that Northern violence along the border – especially against civilians – is unacceptable. South Korea does not respond this way when North Korean defectors or fishermen wander into its sea zones.
Northern paranoia is likely the reason for the jumpy trigger fingers of Northern soldiers, but that is no real excuse. If the North Koreans want a rapprochement – which Moon desperately wants to give them – they need to act like it.
A code of conduct for the Yellow Sea would be an obvious and easy step. This would not require the consent of the international parties – the United States and the United Nations – mixed up in Korea. Moon and Kim could negotiate this directly. That may be a nice test of Pyongyang’s commitment to détente.
SOUTH KOREA NEEDS A UNIFIED RESPONSE
Second, Moon should reach out to the South Korean right to ensure any rapprochement with the North Korea has broad national support.
The Southern right’s hysterical reaction to Moon’s engagement has been driven in part by Moon simply ignoring conservatives altogether. Right now, Moon is engaging the North solely with the support of his leftist coalition.
South Korean opinion on North Korea is deeply split. Moon did not run for the presidency on détente with North Korea, nor does it drive his recent solid polling. (Moon polls well because of his excellent handling of the coronavirus.)
Yet he has pursued a deeply polarising foreign policy and has continued it despite little result. After three years of Moon and American President Donald Trump engaging Kim Jong Un, the situation on the ground in Korea is virtually unchanged.
If Moon is going to push détente regardless of Northern behavior, the conservative backlash at home will only grow more extreme.
Moon may not care ideologically. He may prefer to simply ignore these hawks as cold war dead-enders.
But he should be more pragmatic: If conservatives reject his entire détente project, they will undo his North Korea efforts as soon as they retake the presidency themselves.
This happened once before. Moon’s liberal predecessors, Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, pursued a Sunshine policy with North Korea with no input from the right.
When conservative retook the presidency after Roh, they immediately torn down the sunshine policy. Moon’s détente is headed the same way.
North Korea’s border shooting – and particularly the burning of the body – illustrates once again how brutal North Korea is.
A South Korean engagement with North Korea which simply ignores these sorts of incidents discredits itself. If Moon is a friend of North Korea, the least he can do is pull a commitment out of Kim Jong Un to stop attacking hapless South Korean nationals.
Robert Kelly is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.