From Conflict to Conflict: the Vicious Circle of Korea

Understanding the causes of the current crisis is impossible without at least a brief retrospective journey into the history of inter-Korean relations. The conflict situation on the Korean Peninsula is conditioned by the division of Korea after the Second World War and the continuing struggle for leadership on the peninsula between the two Korean states.

The world has breathed a sigh of relief: North and South Korea, who were ones again on the edge of a large-scale conflict, have not only managed to avoid a fall into the abyss, they also took advantage of the situation and promised to rekindle dialogue across practically the whole range of mutual concerns.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) proclaimed on August 15, 1948, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) established less than a month later, on September 9, have not given up their claims for becoming the one and only legal state on the peninsula and representative of interests of all Korean people.

It is common to hear a phrase like "South Korean puppet government" in Pyongyang, the ROK itself is dubbed a "temporarily occupied (by the United States) southern part of the republic (i.e. the DPRK)". In its turn, the Constitution of the ROK declares the whole Korean Peninsula its territory. The current law on state security in the country defines the DPRK as an "anti-state organization", criminalizing unsanctioned contacts with its representatives and even mere expression of sympathy towards it. Even North Korean instrumental music is banned in the ROK, not to mention its songs and literature. Access to all North Korean websites is blocked. Seoul still officially appoints its own governors and mayors of DPRK provinces and cities, which virtually administrate them from a specially formed government body, the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces, the provinces that merged with the DPRK in 1948.

It should not go unspoken that Koreans made attempts to somehow tamp down the intensity of confrontation. However, in the 1970-1980s, these steps were more motivated by geopolitical changes (China-US rapprochement, détente, disintegration of the USSR) than by internal impulses of the parties. In 1972, the countries came to terms with three principles that were supposed to become the groundwork for unification of the country. However, it took two more decades to substantiate them into an extensive document, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea.

In the document signed by the heads of government of the two states in December 1991, the North and South declared mutual recognition and respect for their political systems, promised to refrain from interfering in each other's affairs, end propaganda attacks and initiatives aimed at ousting the other party's government.

A quarter of a century has passed, but things have not been moving, as some say. Launches of balloons with leaflets calling for overthrow of DPRK's government – recently complemented by disks with the film The Interview, directly encouraging international terrorism and assassination of country leaders whose policy is disapproved by the West – are obviously at odds with the commitments, and norms of civilized conduct, and the international law. Violation of the latter is often used by the West as a pretext to condemn the DPRK.

However, although the propaganda sabotage via balloons was justified by reluctance and even inability of the government to limit the "freedom of public activities" practiced by a set of extreme right-wing organizations and associations of DPRK turncoats, the reactivation of loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone posed an overt escalation of propaganda warfare and took it, as some say, to a state level.

Meanwhile, a little more than a decade and a half ago, after the election of oppositional politician Kim Dae-jung as the president, the situation around inter-Korean relations made a significant improvement. The liberal-democratic part of the ruling elite that had raised him to power believed that accelerating unification, especially by means of a forceful method of solving the problem, was not only dangerous, but also fruitless. A course was proposed, later dubbed the Sunshine Policy. Its aim was to elaborate the so-called "soft landing" of the North Korea regime by developing economic, cultural, humanitarian exchanges and by deferring decisions on the most complicated political and ideological differences until the said exchanges would bear the political changes Seoul wanted to see in Pyongyang. In fact, the line stipulated a period of peaceful co-existence of the two Korean states and effectively led to substantial reduction of military-political and propaganda confrontation between them. The First Inter-Korean Summit (2000) and the Second Summit (2007) were its pinnacle.

Amid that period, in 2004, the parties decided to refrain from such extreme acts of psychological warfare as broadcasts using loudspeakers set along the edges of the demilitarized zone that were under their control.

However, the right-wing conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak that assumed power in 2008 and the succeeding administration of Park Geun-hye, which belonged to the same political camp, supposed that the DPRK had gained way too many benefits from the Sunshine Policy and done too little for the South in exchange. One of the main claims was that the economic cooperation and the humanitarian aid the ROK had provided helped the DPRK refocus resources on the creation of missiles and nuclear weapons. Since then, the main condition of such cooperation and assistance was nuclear disarmament of the DPRK.

Pyongyang deemed the line as Seoul's renunciation of the commitments and agreements reached by the parties during the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). North Koreans made it clear that their "means of deterrence" were aimed at preventing repetition of the Iraqi and Libyan scenario in Korea and that they were not targeting the "compatriots".

A very harsh (as compared to similar programs in India and Pakistan) reaction of the international society to missile launches and nuclear tests in the DPRK – resulting in unprecedentedly austere economic and other sanctions passed by the UN Security Council against the DPRK, only to be complemented by unilateral limitations imposed by the US and its allies – relumed the hopes among some circles in Seoul and the West that the DPRK would collapse anytime soon. They predicted that economic hardships would spark grievances of not only the population, but also of the political establishment, provoke a rift in the ranks of the country's government and destabilization during the transition of power after the decease of Kim Jong-Il in 2011.

When it became clear that forceful pressure and economic blockage were of no avail, the West and the ROK put the human rights problem on the international agenda to press harder on Pyongyang. However, an attempt to bring leaders of the DPRK to international criminal trial was blocked by China and Russia.

The escalation of propaganda and psychological warfare against the DPRK in August 2015 under an overtly fictional pretext was nothing more than activation of efforts on one of the lines of the multi-vector strategy of staggering and destabilizing the DPRK.

Meanwhile, a new war in Korea may turn into a national catastrophe for the whole Korean nation. Just one aspect can serve as an example. The territory of South Korea covers 99,000 square kilometers, comparable with the size of the Russian Rostov region. The country has 25 functioning nuclear reactors on NPPs and 6 more under construction. Destruction of even a third or a fourth of them by conventional bombs or shells in a war may render the peninsula unfit for human habitation.

Therefore, both Koreas deserve credit this time: they found a way not only to, as some say, "save face" when resolving quite a delicate situation, but also to keep the door open for further steps towards each other. Solving one tactical problem, they have the main, fundamental differences to settle. First and foremost, they need to recognize legitimacy of each other's existence in practice, not just in words, and start building relations in accordance with the UN Charter (both the DPRK and the ROK joined the UN in 1991).

So far, even the most brief analysis of the reached agreements demonstrates that they may turn out to be very short lived. Any random incident or deliberate provocation in the demilitarized zone may lead to resumption of propaganda warfare. History tells us that, sadly, not a single inter-Korean agreement, save for the agreement on the Kaesong Industrial Complex, perhaps, has been implemented fully and thoroughly. Hopefully, this one would be more fortunate.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.