Rank row puts full stop to Korean talks
By Aidan Foster-Carter
There are times when you just want to grab both Koreas by the scruff of the neck and bang their heads together. Don't you? (Non-violently, of course.) This is such a time.
One minute - well no, more like over 17 hours: crazy but a good sign, suggesting seriousness - they were about to hold their first senior official talks in six years. Next thing, it's all off. Why?
Because they're both a bunch of rankers, and each has accused the other of a rank injustice.
This is all too petty and dull even to write down, but needs must. The issue that sparked the hissy-fit was over who should lead each side's delegation, and how to ensure parity of rank.
In the South it's simple. They have a Minister of Unification, so obviously this is his job. The more so as the incumbent - Ryoo Kihl-jae, an academic - devised President Park Geun-hye's "trustpolitik" policy, advocating a softer line than her predecessor Lee Myung-bak.
In the North nothing is simple. It has a cabinet, but no one in it deals with the South. Behind and above the cabinet stands the Party - not to mention the military. Then there are odd bodies like the Asia Pacific Peace Committee and the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK). So if you start demanding strict equivalence or symmetry of position in this realm of smoke and mirrors, comrade, you're on a hiding to nothing.
Undaunted, it emerged in the ever-leaky Seoul (they run a tighter ship in Pyongyang) after that marathon 17-hour working-level contact that the South had not only told the North who would lead the South's own delegation - Minister Ryoo, natch - but also who should head up the North's.
That would be Kim Yang-gon, a man with a lengthy job title. As Director of the United Front Department (UFD) in the Central Committee (CC) of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), the North's ruling party, Kim is indeed Pyongyang's point man on South Korea.
Well then, isn't it reasonable for Seoul to say: "We're sending our main man, so you send yours?" Fair enough in theory, if North Korea were a normal country and played by the rules. But it isn't and doesn't. Like Frank Sinatra, it does it its way. Always has, always will.
Which of course is awkward, but that's hardly news. It goes with the territory. Thus anyone who decides to deal with the DPRK knows the score. You never know what they'll do next, so be ready for anything. They will constantly try to trip you up and get one over one you. The trick is knowing when to roll with the punches, and when to stand your ground. This is an art, not a science. It's also a matter of judgment, not something you look up a rulebook.
Park Geun-hye sees it differently. She did a brilliant job earlier this year when the North was in its raving nuclear nutcase mode. Keep calm, warn of retaliation if they really do anything nasty, but still keep the door ajar. Exactly the right balance of firmness and openness.
She also got it right after Pyongyang dropped that nonsense and decided it would talk to the South after all - but not to the government. Businesses invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which the North unilaterally sabotaged in April by withdrawing its entire 53,000 strong workforce, could now come back to the zone - to do quite what, wasn't clear. The North also invited Southern "progressives" to come celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the June 15 Declaration issued at the first inter-Korean summit, in 2000 - then feigned anger when Seoul wouldn't let these "useful innocents" go and prance around in the North.
Quite rightly, especially after the recent tensions, Park was having none of that. The KIC is a project agreed between governments, so it is they who must now discuss how best to mend the harm Pyongyang has done. As for concelebrations, these sit ill with a regime that as recently as March 30 declared it was "in a state of war" with the South. I mean, get real. All that has to be rowed back from before there is anything for which to break out the champagne.
On all this Park got it right. She stood firm, and Kim Jong-eun did a u-turn. Out of the blue, on June 6 Pyongyang suddenly proposed that the two governments talk - without of course admitting that Seoul had suggested this first.
That was good, and the small-print was better. The North proposed discussing not only the KIC but also another suspended joint venture, the Mount Kumgang resort. There, it was the South thar did the suspending, canceling future tours in July 2008 after a middle-aged female tourist was shot dead and the North refused to let a Southern team in to investigate.
This stalemate has now lasted five years. Formally, the DPRK has confiscated ROK-owned hotels and other property worth US$400 million, but this could quite easily be reversed and the resort reopen. Indeed, for Pyongyang to link these two ventures already suggests a possible, and feasible, deal: We'll reopen the KIC if you let your tourists return to Mount Kumgang.
The North's proposal had two further sweeteners. It mentioned family reunions, on which the South is keen. These are usually held at Kumgang; the last was three years ago. And the inevitable demand to mark inter-Korean anniversaries this time included not only June 2000 but also July 4,1972 - date of the first ever North-South joint statement, when dictator Park Chung-hee ruled the South. That looks very like a gesture to his more democratic daughter.
Further Northern concessions followed the South's swift acceptance. The Red Cross hotline at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, cut by the North in March, was switched back on. The South asked for working contacts first; the North agreed and offered Kaesong - the ancient capital, not the factory zone - as a venue. No thanks, said the South, Panmunjom is better for us. Fine, said the North, and duly sent a three-strong team to the pavilion on the Southern side there - headed by a rare female apparatchik, Kim Song-hye, a veteran of the aforementioned Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea.
Seoul accounts said that the marathon session last Sunday-Monday had a good atmosphere. But they couldn't settle the head of team issue, and in the end that sank everything.
Rather than Kim Yang-gon the North proposed Kang Ji-yong, a CPRK director. Not even a vice-chairman (the CPRK chairmanship is currently vacant), thundered the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo in an editorial headlined "Seoul Was Right to Reject N Korea's Insulting Demands". South Korea countered by replacing Ryoo with his vice-minister, Kim Nam-shik. An incensed North dubbed this a provocation and on June 11 called off the talks - or so the South says. At this writing (late June 12) Pyongyang has yet to comment publicly, but today it didn't pick up the phone at Panmunjom when the South called. Somebody is sulking.
How did this all go pear-shaped so unexpectedly? Why could no one compromise? Minister Ryoo called it "growing pains", adding: "If the North wants new inter-Korean relations, it has to show its sincerity." The South's Prime Minister Chung Hong-won added - according to the semi-official news agency Yonhap, which needs to brush up its English translation skills - that "dialogue can be accepted by each other when two sides are on the same level. Talks made by a unilateral push would not have sincerity ... We've been made [sic] unlimited, unilateral concessions to the North so far, but now is time to meet the level [sic]. Moreover, this is also a matter of the pride of the South Korean people."
But the real key is in another Yonhap report. This quoted an unnamed Blue House aide as saying that, as the headline put it, "Park believes 'format governs contents'". The president is said to have often expressed this precept. On the record, her office accused the North of trying to "impose submission and humiliation". It also emphasized, according to Yonhap, that "matching the grades of negotiation delegations is an international standard".
Fair enough in theory, but such rigid formalism won't work with North Korea. This ignores both how the DPRK runs its diplomacy, and the precedent set by past inter-Korean talks. In North Korea, formal rank and substantive power often differ. For instance, in recent years the foreign minister has been a ceremonial figurehead; his deputies are the guys with clout. Everyone knows this. We roll our eyes at Pyongyang's peculiarity, but why kick up a fuss?
So Kang Ji-yong may be a nobody, but the North's five-man team also included Won Dong-yon. As deputy head of the aforementioned WPK CC UFD, Won is Kim Yang-gon's number two, and he is very well known in Seoul, as a major figure in inter-Korean dialogue for 20 years.
If Won Dong-yon was coming, then Kim Jong-eun meant business. But anyway, in the 20-odd previous minister-level meetings during the sunshine era (2000-07) the North had often sent chief delegates whose person and rank alike were initially obscure. Most were styled as senior councillor or chief councillor to the cabinet. It was unclear what that meant exactly, but the South found them businesslike and assumed they had Kim Jong-il's confidence. The Dear Leader ruled through cronies rather than due process anyway. His son may be the same.
So I fear the South called this one wrong: it made a stand where none was warranted, and blew it. I doubt the North intended any insult, but Pyongyang was never going to let Seoul dictate who should represent it. That smacks of arrogance: let's teach these peasants how to behave in polite society. Besides, Kim Yang-gon had never headed up these kind of talks before.
The North should never have gone out on its crazy limb this spring. But now it was seeming to yield, both in agreeing to talks as such and on the details mentioned above. That suggests seriousness of purpose. The wiser course would have been to let them choose their own head of team, hold the meeting and see what happened. If Pyongyang then or thereafter reverted to play-acting or prevaricating, fair enough. But at least Seoul would have given it a try.
Trustpolitik thus far is but an empty word, and at this rate risks remaining so. Building trust isn't easy, and proceeds on many levels. Formalities are only one, and arguably not the best way with North Korea. "Format governs contents"? With all respect, that is formalism, not principle. I sincerely hope both Koreas can get past this snafu, learn from it, and try again.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korean affairs for 45 years.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)