[Column] How the spring of 2018 became the winter of 2021

Posted on : 2021-01-17 09:53 KST Modified on : 2021-01-17 09:53 KST
The inter-Korean agreements of 2018 failed because a lack of reciprocal measures from Seoul and Washington
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walk across a pedestrian bridge in Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018. (photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walk across a pedestrian bridge in Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018. (photo pool)

Everything is frozen solid, including inter-Korean relations. In fact, they’ve been frozen for quite some time.

There wasn’t any meaningful contact between South and North Korea throughout 2020, and all lines of communication between them have been cut. North Korea even demolished the Inter-Korean Liaison Office, which was set up after the inter-Korean summits in 2018.

Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party (WPK), and Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the WPK Central Committee, went so far as to declare that they were going to redefine relations with South Korea as “relations with the enemy.”

And now North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has confirmed at the highest level — during his report at the 8th WPK Congress — that inter-Korean relations have reverted to the time before the Panmunjom Declaration.

How did those “spring days” of 2018 give way to a winter freeze, three years later?

Gradually reducing tensions

In his 1962 book “An Alternative to War or Surrender,” American political scientist Charles Osgood proposed a conflict resolution approach that he called “graduated reciprocation in tension reduction.” This was a sensible proposal for the two sides to take gradual reciprocal measures so as to ease tensions.

Osgood’s approach begins with a concession. In order for the conflict resolution process to begin, one of the two parties to a conflict must make some small but unilateral measure to ease tensions.

If the other party responds positively by taking a reciprocal measure, the first party is then free to take a second step toward tension reduction. That’s how to kick off a “virtuous cycle” of peace.

And that’s exactly how we got to the spring thaw. South Korean President Moon Jae-in made the first move. In December 2017, he publicly said that South Korea and the US were willing to consider delaying their joint military exercises. He also asked North Korea for its cooperation in maintaining security during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Kim Jong-un responded right away in his New Year’s address, when he said he would take the necessary measures to ensure that the Pyeongchang Olympics were successful. Such an expression of goodwill led to the beautiful cooperation seen during the Olympics. That was how the virtuous cycle of peace began.

The next step was taken by North Korea, which announced a halt to nuclear weapon tests and ICBM test launches leading up to the inter-Korean summit in April 2018. This conciliatory gesture led to an agreement at the inter-Korean summit to work toward ending military hostilities and improve inter-Korean relations.

While it was unusual for Kim Jong-un to agree to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the inter-Korean summit, North Korea showed it meant business by dismantling its nuclear test site at Punggye Village that May.

Such actions paved the way for the US-North Korea summit in June, in which the two sides agreed to establish peaceful relations, work toward ending the Korean War, and denuclearize the peninsula. A week later, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense and the US Defense Department reciprocated with more action: namely, the decision to halt all planning for the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercise, scheduled for that August.

In this manner, those spring days led to a sequence in which preemptive measures for peace elicited reciprocal measures. But that’s as far as it went. The virtuous cycle of peace had run its course, and we started to move back into winter.

The world was made aware that something had gone badly wrong by the breakdown of negotiations during the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, in February 2019. But there had been worrisome signs even before that.

Several of the measures to improve relations that South and North Korea had agreed upon in their summit weren’t carried out. The Inter-Korean Liaison Office was built in Kaesong, but the Kaesong Industrial Complex wasn’t reopened, tours to Mt. Kumgang didn’t resume, and rail and road connections between the two sides weren’t repaired. Furthermore, 2018 and 2019 both passed without any progress on the agreement to arrange an end-of-war declaration and a peace treaty before the end of 2018.

S. Korea expanded its defense budget and US continued military exercises

South and North Korea had promised to halt all hostile activity against each other, but they didn’t keep that promise. And the US and South Korea, which had ostensibly agreed to halt their Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, actually continued those exercises, though on a smaller scale, under the new name of “Dong Maeng.”

The South Korean and American militaries staked out their opposition to building a peace regime on the pretext of “maintaining joint defense readiness.” On top of that, the Moon administration greatly expanded its defense budget in both 2019 and 2020.

In his 2020 book “Rage,” Bob Woodward reveals Kim Jong-un’s “rage” over such actions. In 2018, Kim brought up the “provocative joint military exercises” in a personal letter to US President Donald Trump, saying, “I am clearly offended and I do not want to hide this feeling from you.”

North Korea’s complaint was that, even though it had taken measures to halt its development of critical weapons by halting nuclear weapon and ICBM tests and shutting down a nuclear test site and a missile test site, South Korea and the US hadn’t reciprocated with measures that could ease tensions to a corresponding extent. In reality, this complaint was probably an expression of North Korea’s anxiety.

When Charles Osgood made his proposal, he was thinking about the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Since the two sides had almost an identical level of military strength, either side could begin taking preemptive measures to ease tensions without endangering their national security.

But on the Korean Peninsula, it’s South Korea and the US that can afford to take preemptive measures to ease tensions — which is why it’s the Moon and Biden administrations that have to make the first move.

Suh Jae-jung
Suh Jae-jung

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University of Tokyo

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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