Pyongyang, Seoul caught between principle and pragmatism
With North Korea hardening its stance towards the US and South Korea, a range of issues are complicating efforts to interact with Asia’s prickliest regime
It’s a tough bind to be in. Do you bow to the demands of the mercurial dictatorship you are trying to usher in from the cold? Or do you stick firmly to free democratic principles, thereby complicating – if not outright risking – the prior process?
This is the situation South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration finds itself in at a point when it might, reasonably, have expected to be basking in the warming glow of inter-Korean détente.
In February and March, Seoul successfully hosted a “Peace Olympics,” during which North Korean power brokers pow-wowed on the sidelines in February and March. It enjoyed a successful and promising inter-Korean summit in April. And it hopes to applaud, from the sidelines, the first meeting between a North Korean and US leader in June.
But now, in the critical lead up to the proposed Trump summit in Singapore on June 12, North Korea – which had previously played Mr Nice Guy by halting missile and nuclear tests, agreeing to shut down its nuclear test site and releasing US prisoners – has shifted stance.
Not only has it cast doubt on its attendance at the summit, it has called off high-level inter-Korean talks, citing South Korean-US military exercises. It has demanded the release of presumed defectors. And it has slammed the recent testimony of a high-profile defector.
All these issues pose problems for Seoul. Can it stay the course?
Drills or talks? Defectors or abductees?
Last week, North Korea refused to attend scheduled high-level talks with Seoul, citing the Max Thunder aerial exercises that Seoul and Washington were holding. It subsequently became clear that Seoul had actually asked the US to scale back the drills, and not include its menacing B-52 heavy bombers. However, Seoul’s intervention did not stop Pyongyang from using the exercises as an excuse to break off planned talks.
And earlier this month, Pyongyang officials relayed a statement by North Korea’s Red Cross, demanding that Seoul release 12 North Koreans who had worked at a North Korean state-run restaurant in Ningbo, China, and reportedly defected to the South in 2016.
The Pyongyang demand followed an apparent confession, aired on South Korean investigative cable TV broadcaster JTBC, by the manager of a Pyongyang state-run restaurant of his complicity with National Intelligence Service agents from the South, who, he claimed, “goaded and kidnapped” the waitresses.
The 2016 defection – which took place under Seoul’s previous, now-disgraced Park Geun-hye government – rattled inter-Korean ties, but most reports at the time stated that the North Koreans defected of their own accord, while Pyongyang maintains its citizens were “hijacked.”
The restaurant manager revealed to the TV program that he was an undercover agent for Seoul and was coerced into taking the waitresses to the South. One of the alleged restaurant workers also said she wanted to go home and join her parents.
South Korean Unification Ministry officials say they are investigating the case. The NIS has stayed mum.
Should defectors speak? Balloon flyers grounded
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat in London who is widely seen as the highest-profile defector in the South, spoke at the National Assembly on May 14 to promote his newly published memoir, which is harshly critical of both Kim Jong-un and the North Korean system as a whole.
On the 16th, North Korean state media blasted Thae as “human scum,” and one ruling party lawmaker tweeted discomfort with the fact that Thae had been invited to speak before the Assembly, seeing it as an unnecessarily provocation at a delicate moment.
The situation presents Seoul policymakers with tricky decisions. On the one hand, they are obliged to maintain South’s democratic freedoms; on the other, the actions of certain parties in the South do, and may well be designed to, enrage the North – a prickly polity and a fiendishly difficult partner to negotiate with.
The dilemma may extend to President Moon Jae-in himself: He is a former human rights lawyer, but is also a champion of engagement and peace-making with North Korea.
One pundit expressed his concern that Seoul might, indeed, be tempted to crack down on civil liberties to placate Pyongyang and advance the détente process.
“President Moon himself has not said that Thae Yong-ho should shut up, but some anti-North Korea activists tried to release [propaganda] balloons over the border, and they were stopped by police,” said John Lee, a columnist with specialist media NKNews. “I don’t know if Moon might want to expand this; whether or not he is tempted to do so depends on his support from the public.”