Happy New Year, Now Pay Up

Those who read only headlines will believe that Kim Jong Un has declared peace with South Korea. Those who read on, and who know anything of the background to the story, will see that Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Speech is a demand for Park Geun-Hye to resume massive financial aid and make territorial concessions to the North, in line with what Roh Moo-Hyun agreed in his 2007 going-out-of-business summit.

It’s debatable whether the message was really all that conciliatory.  Kim, whose country has launched two major military attacks and multiple terrorist attacks against South Korea since 2010, called on “anti-reunification forces” in South Korea to cease their hostility toward the North.  Good to know.  As Reuters’s Jack Kim notes, any mention of North Korea’s nuclear programs was “conspicuously absent” from the speech.  In fact, the speech is more demand than offer:

Kim on Tuesday asked for a détente — but with prerequisites that the conservative Park will be reluctant to agree to. To promote inter-Korean relations and hasten unification, Kim said, both sides must implement joint agreements signed off years ago by liberal, pro-engagement presidents in Seoul. Those agreements call for, among other things, economic cooperation between the countries, high-level government dialogue, and the creation of a special “cooperation” zone in the Yellow Sea, where the North and South spar over a maritime border.

Park, who takes office next month, has said she’ll resume humanitarian exchanges and small-scale economic projects with the North — efforts that were shuttered under outgoing hard-liner Lee Myung-bak. But Park promises to hold off on major economic cooperation unless the North disassembles its nuclear weapons program, something Pyongyang says it will never do.  [WaPo, Chico Harlan]

The terms ostensibly agreed in 2007 are worth rereading, if only to remind yourself just how dangerously naive Roh was, and to take stock of how many of the terms the North has since violated.  But what did Roh actually give up?  During South Korea’s most recent presidential election, there were persistent reports that Roh (perhaps with opposition candidate and former Roh aid Moon Jae-In’s knowledge) compromised the integrity of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime extension of the DMZ in the Yellow Sea.  The fact that the conservative press pushed the story is suspect, but part of the reason it became a major issue is that it rings true.  Roh’s associates deny that they agreed to give up the NLL, but concede that they discussed creating a “a peace zone in the West (Yellow) Sea,” under which North Korea would have gained access to most of the disputed waters south of the NLL and west of Incheon, plus the Han Estuary.

Oddly enough, Roh’s people say there are no records of exactly what they discussed with the North Koreans in that regard, and Roh himself wasn’t immediately available for comment, so the precise meaning of “peace zone” will now be open to different interpretations.  Even if Park knew what this North Korean demand meant, she could never accede to it.  It would mean giving up South Korea’s control over some of its most important fishing waters, and one of its more important sea lanes. As a general matter, Park supports aid and expanding trade with the North, but not without certain preconditions.  The North will not compromise its demand or accept preconditions.  So far, in other words, events are unfolding just about the way I’d expected.

And of course, as Sung Yoon Lee points out, none of this means the North isn’t about to do something nasty.  Some analysts continue to speculate that North Korea is about to test a nuke.  Their evidence looks a little flimsy to me, but with the U.N. still failing to agree on any reaction whatsoever to North Korea’s missile test — defenders of Susan Rice, take note — the North may see this as the perfect moment to continue perfecting better and smaller nukes.

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