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Inter-Korean tensions: ideology first, at any cost?

South-Korean soldiers on guard at the frontier between both Koreas, Panmumjeom (© 2011 / A. Nass)
South-Korean soldiers on guard at the frontier between both Koreas, Panmumjeom (© 2011 / A. Nass)
Publication date : October 2011
Author(s) : Alain Nass E-mail
Areas : Korea, Democratic People\'s Republic of, Korea, Republic of

Panmunjeom (Demilitarized Zone, southern region - South DMZ).
On guard are three South-Korean soldiers in front
of the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission) buildings.
The building in the background is a North-Korean building,
while the boundary line is represented by the concrete slab
running in the middle of the Commission's blue buildings. (© 2011 / A. Nass)

2010 has been the worst year of inter-Korean confrontation for decades. Human losses are heavy for the South, with about 50 victims, military and civilians, with two major incidents in the West Sea: a Ship of the ROK Navy sunk by an undetected action attributed to DPRK, which then poured artillery shells on Yeonpyong Island. The result of the South Korean military responses is not known.

It is useful to consider the reasons for these events which will definitely mark the inter-Korean relations, reflecting the mutual choice for firmness and the test of strength since 2008, and the difficulty to get out of a gear dominated by the ideological confrontation. While 2012 is announced by Pyongyang as the year of the consolidation of the regime, and with a presidential election in the South, should we expect a reorientation towards negotiation and relaxation or the aggravation of tensions?

The Kaesong joint industrial area (in North Korea), as seen from Panmunjeom. (© 2011 / A. Nass)
Panmunjeom, the bridge of the Kyongui line, between Munsan (South Korea) and Kaesong (North Korea), rebuilt in 2002. (© 2011 / A. Nass)

I. The rise in crisis

Early 2008, a new conservative administration took place in Seoul. Determined to break with the liberal approach to the North of the two previous liberal presidencies, it enacted new principles contrary to policies followed until then. Willing to act firmer with the regime in Pyongyang, that administration wanted to backtrack on several inter-Korean projects and agreements, accused of funding the regime, advocating a strict reciprocity, challenging the automaticity of any aid, and making the North Korean nuclear issue a bilateral priority. At the same time, Seoul went ahead without waiting to deepen the military and economic rapprochement with the US ally.

The North Korean regime was long to express an opinion on this new Government, responding first verbally, and asking for respect to all inter-Korean commitments, then denouncing more and more strongly Seoul for its "intransigence and provocations" (controversy over pre-emptive strikes).

Mid 2008, the accidental death of a South Korean tourist killed in the North to have inadvertently entered a military compound, is at the outset to worsen the relationship. The regime refusing to apologize, the Conservatives in the South used this incident to justify their intransigence, to denounce the liberal approach, and to suspend the so-called Sunshine Policy.

The incident has thus compromised at the outset any desire for soothed contact, with the question of prior apology emerging as a new obstacle.

Starting in 2009, the degradation of relations is overt, tensions are frequent and exchanges have suffered significantly (end of the joint exploitation of the Keumkang Tourism Resort, blocking of the industrial complex of Kaesong). Direct contacts are interrupted, the flagship programs of reconciliation (meeting of separated families) suspended.

In the North, the elite who had supported the opening with Seoul and who took advantage of the trade it generated has been purged. Added to a failed economic reform, the health problems of the leader speeded the implementation of a viable mechanism for a succession, to compensate for a possible vacancy of power. This process, with its potential instability to fear, played into the hands of hardliners in the regime, people already concerned about the destabilizing effects of the opening with Seoul. Their approach was legitimized by the quickly deteriorating relations.

The Seoul Government, better backed militarily by the US ally and, thereby, more assured of its security in case of crisis, seems to be comforted in its more intransigent and conditional approach, which was not even challenged by the new US administration, Democrat[1], , arrived in 2009. The most Conservatives estimated that, thanks to that strong international support, the firmness can pay back and force the regime to surrender to Seoul conditions to survive and avoid collapse.

The Pyongyang regime will however remind everybody that other ways, more painful, are still existing, proving once again its capacity of resilience in the face of adversity, choosing the West Sea as a battlefield. This area of direct military contact between both Koreas, where demarcation is not agreed upon, has already been the theater of clashes (1999, 2002, and 2009). There, the mutual desire to fight and revenge is predominating.

So in a few months, on both sides of the demilitarized zone, inter-Korean relations became again hostage to the most hardliners, paving the way for a clash.

The Demilitarized Zone, center region (center DMZ), December 2007 (© 2007 / A. Nass)

II. 2010, confrontation

II.1. The sinking of the "Cheonan".

March 26, a ROK Navy Ship Cheonan, patrolling at sea in the West Sea near the demarcation line, is cut in two by an explosion and sunk, killing 46 sailors over a crew of 104.

The international investigation led by the South Korean Government[2], closely supported by the US ally, concluded in May to the North Korean involvement[3] and an attack by a NK torpedo which debris (propeller)  found by dredging the scene of the sinking, were presented.

North Korea has always denied responsibility, but international condemnation was almost unanimous, although some technical findings of the investigation remain disputed. A team of experts of the Russian Navy has produced separated analyses[4], with other assumptions.

The event has also cast a serious doubt on the effectiveness of the US-ROK monitoring in the West Sea, an admittedly difficult but little extended area, closely monitored for decades, where depths are low (30-40 m at the location) and channels well known. Undetected underwater action despite the redundancy of the equipment deployed by the Allies (further strengthened while, more to the South, a joint naval exercise was involving US Navy ships), is disturbing. It would demonstrate unsuspected capabilities of NK military, in a very sophisticated operation, escaping detection in and after the action, despite the long distance to travel in shallow waters.

II.2. Artillery Shelling of Yeonpyong island.

In November, continuing in a fatal cycle of tensions already exacerbated with the Cheonan, NK answered to SK live firing exercises in West Sea by a salvo of heavy artillery on the inhabited island of Yeonpyong, leaving 4 dead, 19 injured and heavy damages. This direct military action against SK territory is unprecedented since the 1950s and the War.

Pyeongtaek, a memorial for the South-Korean victims of the 2002 naval incident:
an exchange of fire in the Western Sea between North Korean and South Korean patrol boats
 over the Northern Limit Line (NLL), near the Yeonpyeon islands,
ended with a sunken South Korean boat and several dead military personnel
on both sides, including six South Koreans. (© 2011 / A. Nass)

III. Lessons learned and prospects

When introducing its new approach to the North in 2008, the new power of Seoul sought more to denounce the "errors" of the Liberal presidencies, using the inter-Korean relations as a vector for this purpose. This approach for internal purpose however weighed instantly on still-fragile North-South relations, laboriously woven since 1991, year of the first major inter-Korean agreements.

For Seoul it was also, in full consistency with its inter-Korean principles and its calculation for domestic policy, to "rehabilitate" the alliance relationship with Washington, assessed as deteriorated under the Liberals. That rapprochement was helped by the good relationship and the ideological proximity with the Bush administration. Its military component (joint exercises and planning, scenarios of intervention in the North, etc) reactivated fears for Pyongyang, confronted to its own weaknesses and the risk of coordinated external intervention in a crisis, and accentuating the determination of the regime to guard the risk by improving its deterrent capabilities and easing the threat that it may represent.

The escalation of the intransigent rhetoric on both sides reignited military tensions, aimed for the North sometimes rather to the US (missiles and nuclear testing, HEU program), to lure them to negotiation, or to the South.

The firmness showed by Seoul was however quickly met with its limits: it can certainly weaken the regime but could contribute to an overt crisis or even a collapse which neither Seoul nor the other players want. To be effective, it imposes to rely even more on the US, which have all the necessary means (anticipation, reaction), but at the risk of not being master of the decisions and reactions in case of incident, the US having no interest in any situation getting out of control, because they are also in the front line.

Those incidents have once again proved that, beyond the rhetoric, actions in force and retaliation are still not a credible option, and North knows it. The firmness may even be counterproductive: for the South, it caused the disappearance of relays and contacts with North won through the exchanges, a network to rebuild. Positions dearly acquired in the commercial area and exploitation of natural resources in North Korea has been abandoned, to the benefit of the Chinese players, which will be difficult to put aside.

It seems more appropriate and realistic to return to negotiation and detente, despite the financial (aid) and ideological (accept the regime as equal) cost, induced in the short term. But history has shown that Seoul can earned status and initiative, not only towards the North but also to the US ally and Chinese neighbor, more than in any phases of intransigence. This attitude has the advantage of creating trust, influence and dependency in NK, useful to reduce tensions and benefitting SK interests.

But with just one year left before the ROK presidential election, the clock is ticking, and Seoul has lost the initiative on inter-Korean issue, depending more on Washington and Beijing for any progress. Another policy is possible for Seoul, as it is now requested in SK. But to be credible, it will be necessary to change those policymakers around the president who are still advocating intransigence. 

Alain Nass, expert on Asia and Korea,
graduated from Paris 1 Sorbonne (History and International relations)
and Inalco (Korean)

Ki Jong Dong, a North-Korean village near Kaesong, as seen from Panmunjeom.
This village, which was uninhabited for a long while, was North Korea's showcase
towards South Korea. It is now inhabited by North Korean workers from Kaesong. 
The huge metallic mast is actually a North Korean flagpole. 
It was designed to be higher than the South Korea flagpole built
just opposite the border in the Dae Song Dong village. (© 2011 / A. Nass)

[1] The Seoul Government was even able to convince the Obama administration not to endorse the "North Korea Policy" of President Clinton, which was found to be generating too much conflict with the Republicans and proved traumatic for the Democrats which lost the presidential election. 

[2] Participants: South Korea, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Sweden.

[3] “Joint Investigation Report On the Attack against ROK Ship Cheonan”, Ministry of National Defense, September 2010.

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