Koreas agree to fight another day

They came, they talked, and they signed, but they solved nothing. Plus or minus one piece of paper, three severed legs, and an implicit promise of payment, we are where we were on the morning of August 4th, when Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon embarked on their fateful patrol.

As I predicted hours before the deal was announced, Pyongyang didn’t apologize, and Seoul will continue to pay. The loudspeakers will be switched off. There will not be an all-out war, and probably never would have been. The limited, incremental war will resume, only at a time and place more to Pyongyang’s advantage.

My guess is that most analysts who prefer not to label the Ikes and the Tinas will be pleased that “both sides” found a “face-saving” way to “de-escalate” a situation that one of the sides created with malice aforethought, and will now use for its financial and political benefit, but I can’t see how we’re any closer to lasting peace or security.

So, what was agreed? Six things, as printed by the North’s KCNA, and translated by Yonhap.

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

That reads like an implicit promise of a payoff to me, and to South Korea’s business lobby. It’s a sure bet Pyongyang will read it that way, too. If so, Park Geun-Hye will give the North direct or indirect aid, or lift sanctions imposed after North Korea’s attack in 2010, for which it still hasn’t apologized. That would amount to Seoul throwing money at Pyongyang for maiming two of its soldiers, and for promising not to maim many more of them.

Or, Park Geun-Hye may, on reflection, grasp that such transparent appeasement in the face of extortion creates a perverse incentive, and refuse to pay up without getting something more tangible in return. This is, after all, only an agreement to “hold talks.” If the talks end in an agreement, it would be as subject to reinterpretation as any other deal with North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un doesn’t get his payday, he may feel justified in making further threats and provocations. He might even feel compelled to make them. Either alternative makes further violence seem more, not less, likely.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

Before this agreement was signed, President Park had demanded “a clear apology and promises not to stage any provocations.” Although Park’s National Security Advisor doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, Park got neither one. Instead, she got a Shinzo Abe Special —  a vague non-apology that it was “regrettable that some South Korean soldiers were injured by a land mine explosion that occurred in the south.” Here, the original Korean and how we translate it matters:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.21.34 PM

[via The Oranckay]

Anyone could see that an apology wasn’t likely without much more pressure and patience, and if Park wasn’t willing to apply them, she shouldn’t have gone public with those demands. The difference between an apology and an expression of regret is much more than semantic. It’s the all-important difference between “we’re sorry we did a bad thing” and “a shame that bad thing happened to you.” The North Koreans aren’t sorry, and aren’t admitting anything. Instead, they’re saying that last week’s events “taught South Korea an important lesson not to cook up a story about provocations by the North.” “We didn’t do it” is as good as “we’ll do it again.”

An apology implies contrition and a change in the actor’s behavior; an expression of regret (Korean: yugam) accepts no fault or duty. If you think the difference doesn’t matter, you aren’t familiar with the bitter historical controversies between Japan (on one hand) and Korea and China (on the other). Read the coverage of that issue in the Korean and Chinese press, and you’d think that Japan had never apologized for the crimes it committed against the Korean and Chinese people. That isn’t the case, but the subsequent words and acts of Japanese leaders have called the sincerity of those apologies into question. Recently, Japanese leaders have offered vague statements of regret instead. Koreans know the difference, and they know that North Korea didn’t apologize.

Of course, any newspaper reader will tell you that North Korea doesn’t do sorry. The last time it even expressed regret, after all, was after Operation Paul Bunyan. Yet even then, Kim Il-Sung at least promised not to provoke first.

Some have suggested that Pyongyang’s expression of regret will cause His Porcine Majesty to lose face, and might even destabilize his regime. That seems fanciful to me. I doubt that Kim Jong-Un would have printed the whole agreement in KCNA if “face” concerned him. In a must-read analysis for the Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale writes:

[A]fter walking away from the latest negotiations with a deal that is likely to be portrayed as a victory domestically, Mr. Kim appears to have mastered the provocation playbook.

“He’s very skilled. In some ways, I think he is an even greater dictator than his dad,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. [WSJ]

Well, someone is, and that someone lives in Pyongyang, not Seoul.

Importantly for Pyongyang, “I regret that thing happened” is also compatible with denial.

In return, North Korea expressed regret—but didn’t apologize—over the explosion of land mines this month that severed the legs of two South Korean soldiers, an incident that prompted Seoul to respond by broadcasting the cross-border propaganda messages.

Investigations by South Korea and the United Nations military command found North Korea responsible for the mine attack. Under the deal, Pyongyang is able to continue to deny involvement. [WSJ]

After all, North Korea has privately expressed regret for the sinking of the Cheonan, but publicly, it still denies having anything to do with it, as do its apologists. Pyongyang’s sympathizers here were quick to seize on the fact that this was not an apology, because that gives them cover to continue to deny Pyongyang’s guilt. In America, this may be a fringe view, but it won’t be in South Korea. The empowerment of North Korea’s apologists is an important part of the political war between North and South.

In the end, the difference between apology and regret matters because of what it says about the prospects for peace. An admission and an apology — along with the acceptance of some consequence for one’s crime — is part of the justice victims deserve, and a necessary assurance that it won’t easily be repeated. Japan’s expressions of regret are, perhaps rightfully, rejected decades after the fact, yet North Korea’s “regret” is accepted uncritically. Ethno-nationalism plays a part in this, but so does South Korea’s relief at the relaxation of terror. That’s how blackmail works.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

I don’t want to make too much of this, because blaring K-pop and propaganda at a few hundred conscripts was never going to change the course of history. Nor do I want to make too little of this, because the North’s hyperbolic reaction suggests that it was very afraid of what the South had to say.

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman says in a slow, deliberate voice emanating from one of the banks of 48 speakers set up along the South Korean side of the military demarcation line. The messages can travel about 12 miles at night and about half that during the day, well into North Korean territory.

Another message notes that Kim Jong Un, who took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011, hasn’t yet traveled abroad or met a single foreign leader.

“President Park Geun-hye has .?.?. visited many countries since she became the president, including three visits to China,” one of the recorded messages says, referring to the South Korean president and her close relationship with Beijing, North Korea’s supposed patron. “However, Kim Jong Un hasn’t visited any other countries in the three-plus years since he became leader.”

At other times, the speakers play peppy southern K-pop songs like “Tell Me Your Wish” by Girls’ Generation. (“Tell me your wish, tell me your little dream, imagine your ideal type in your head, and look at me, I’m your genie, your dream, your genie.”) [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

There has been a rash of defections by North Korean soldiers recently, and their morale isn’t good, but it’s hard to know how messages like these affect morale and readiness, or whether they can help prevent war by persuading soldiers not to fight. The North calls “[p]sychological warfare . . . an open act of war against it.” This tactic clearly touched a nerve. It’s probably not the loudspeakers that North Korea fears, but the precedent. It fears that Seoul will use information operations as a deterrent through a more effective challenge to its control over information, such as radio broadcasting, or the expansion of independent cellular signals.

“For the North Koreans, the broadcasts are dangerous because this is about the survival of the regime,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator who has sat across the table from North Koreans on many occasions. [WaPo]

In his book, Dear Leader, Jang Jin-Sung describes his work inside the United Front Department, Pyongyang’s propaganda agency, with a well-staffed and well-equipped branch that runs a sophisticated propaganda operation inside South Korea, using every medium available to it. Jang, who defected to South Korea in 2004, probably knows more about the importance of propaganda to Pyongyang than anyone available to us.

[W]e must remember that the Supreme Leader Centred political system of the DPRK was constructed with lies, and its maintenance depends on it. The psychological dissonance brought on by confrontation with reality, in such a setup, is not to be underestimated.

That is also why the North Korean leadership is sensitive to and adamantly opposed to broadcasting and flows of information from the outside. The North Korean people today are no longer as they were under the reigns of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. While the Supreme Leader has grown younger, the people have become more mature. Today, the worth of the Supreme Leader’s divinity does not stack up to one dollar of foreign currency in the marketplaces.

People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty.

Although South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasting is of a lesser intensity than in the past, the North Korean regime of the third generation is weaker than it was in the past, and the impact of the blow will be correspondingly greater. In fact, proclaiming an intention to declare war in response to cross-border broadcasting is tantamount to proclaiming how a Supreme Commander cannot trust even his frontline troops.

It is in the interest not only of North Koreans, but also of the South Korean people, to broadcast information across all of North Korea. For those nations whose quality of peacetime is what is great and cherished, piercing a border in this way – not with guns but with words of truth – is the most efficient way to bring parties to negotiations, and to achieve lasting security, co-prosperity and co-operation. A nation whose quality of peacetime is cherished must not fear responding accordingly to military provocation. [New Focus International]

Read the whole thing. Freedom of information, including the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday’s agreement was a step toward ceding that right on behalf of the North Korean people. When traded for the demobilization of the North Korean military, it gives me a vague unease that non-violent speech is now equated with threats of violence.

There is also the matter of mutuality. The Il Shim Hue spy ring, for example, ran a well-placed influence operation. It appears to have penetrated U.S. Forces, Korea and the Blue House, and attempted to manipulate elections. Does the South Korean NIS run influence operations in the North? I obviously don’t know the whole story, but I doubt that its operations are equally effective. North Korea more-or-less regularly broadcasts propaganda into South Korea through stations such as the Voice of Korea. The North didn’t agree to stop that, or to uproot its influence operation in South Korea. So let the South turn off the loudspeakers, but don’t concede the wider information war.

4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

What’s noticeable here is what the two sides did not agree — not to resume Korean War II at a place, time, and intensity level more to Pyongyang’s liking. Such an agreement might have been a perfect real-world test of a peace treaty, lacking only the things Pyongyang and its sympathizers really want — the lifting of sanctions and de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

The partial demobilization will still reassure many people; there was always some risk that Seoul’s response to the original provocation would escalate unpredictably. Of course, Seoul could have eliminated that risk entirely by doing what it did in 2010: nothing. Seoul made a decision that some level of response was necessary to protect its security, and that the attendant risk was greater than the risk of doing nothing.

Today’s deal, however, contained no security guarantees for Seoul — not that those would have been worth the paper they were printed on. Seoul probably feels safer, but isn’t. The cycle will repeat, and we are still in a state that is neither all-out war nor peace. The cycles will deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear development and its new long-range rocket artillery shift the balance of terror in Pyongyang’s favor, or until the North Korean state collapses. Current trends suggest that the former contingency is far more likely than the latter.

5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.

I’ve never liked the word “reunion” for the torturous procedure of which we speak here. The North Korean minders who listen to every word are very nearly ventriloquists to their captives; the captives themselves are hostages to Pyongyang’s message discipline. It must be better than nothing. It must be heartbreaking.

6. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields. 

It’s hard to object to something so vague, and without knowing whether money will change hands.

I’ll let the Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale close this out:

North Korea observers said the agreement is unlikely to break the cycle of threats of violence Pyongyang uses to win aid and security guarantees. It also underscores Seoul’s willingness to make strategic sacrifices in the hope of a more stable relationship with its volatile rival.

In many ways, the latest crisis resembles prior confrontations: a swift attack, followed by fears of an escalation of conflict. A resolution is then found through dialogue, with little cost to North Korea for its aggression. Typically, resolutions are portrayed inside North Korea as victories against hostile forces, bolstering support for its leader.  [WSJ]

At the end of the day, the opposing parties in Seoul were high-fiving and back-slapping, and Washington was relieved that this story would soon fade from the headlines for a while. What no one seems to be saying is that we’re any closer to solving the deeper problem. 


  1. Daniel Pinkston’s assertion that Jong-Un is more skillful at managing the family business than his dad strikes me as surreal. And I’m curious why he thinks that.


  2. One thing I am really curious about the 70% of submarines being deployed.

    I absolutely doubt that they were sea bound and that they just moved them inland to hide them from satellite footage to give the impression of deployment.

    Considering the state of their submarines if 70% of them were actually deployed many would of sunk simply due to their dire state of maintenance.


  3. Deeply distressing and appalling. I don’t understand why the South went through the formality of the talks. When you are resolved to give everything away and get nothing in return, there is no need for a meeting.