Korean War II: What the Joint Statements tell us about Pyongyang’s strategy

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

George Orwell

On June 15, 2000, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il signed a joint statement agreeing to seek “independent” reunification and an inter-Korean coalition government. It was not the first joint statement between North and South. This relatively modest one from 1972 calls for “both parties [to] promote national unity as a united people over any differences of our ideological and political systems.” In retrospect, this was a rhetorical victory for Pyongyang. So was the statement that “reunification must be achieved with no reliance on external forces or interference,” although this seemed, at the time, to have been palliated by a subsequent statement that “reunification must be achieved peacefully without the use of military forces.”

The 2000 Joint Statement went much further. That agreement, celebrated by the Nobel Committee, widely hailed by the far left in both South Korea and the United States, purchased with an illegal payment of $500 million, and almost constantly flogged in North Korean propaganda to this day, consists of five points. They’re worth reviewing in full for what they suggest about Pyongyang’s intentions, its objectives, and its strategy for achieving them. Don’t waste your time reading these as a member of the Nobel Committee might have. Instead, read them as a North Korean negotiator would have drafted or edited them in 2000, or through the jaundiced eyes of someone in the United Front Department today. Paranoid people have enemies, too, after all.

1. The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.

If you’ve read B.R. Myers’s book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” you’ve no doubt latched onto the phrase, “the Korean people … are masters of the country.” This is a far better definition of juche than the “self-reliance” one tends to see from Voxplainers and Buzzfeeders who recall the existence of North Korea once every nuclear test. The phrase “independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people” isn’t far off from “among our race only,” which in Korean translates to uri minjokkiri. Regular Korea watchers will recognize this as the name of one of North Korea’s main propaganda websites (if you will forgive the redundancy) for ethnic Koreans in the South and elsewhere. It’s not unlike some of the rhetoric we’ve also heard Moon Jae-in utter in some of his less guarded moments. Nationalism runs deep in both Koreas.

2. For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.

Note the sly reference to “the South’s concept,” as if this idea really originated in Seoul rather than Pyongyang. This is the single most important concession the North won in 2000 and, to me, the Rosetta Stone of Pyongyang’s strategy. Whoever dominates this confederation will dominate Korea. In 2000, this might not have seemed like such a terrible prospect to Kim Dae-jung, who had so recently survived several attempts by right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee to kill him, and who had benefited from the support of pro-Pyongyang Koreans in Japan. Clearly, Kim’s view of North Korea was not an entirely hostile one. But if Roh Moo-hyun’s view was arguably even friendlier to Pyongyang, Roh could still only take things as far as the politics of the day allowed. Pyongyang had to set the pursuit of confederation aside during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Meanwhile, it took full advantage of Barack Obama’s almost complete lack of a North Korea policy to develop a nuclear arsenal at mallima speed.

3. The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.

Note the omission of South Korean prisoners of war still held in the North in clear violation of the Armistice agreement. Note the complete betrayal of the (then, perhaps) hundreds of thousands of North Korean political prisoners — including children — suffering and dying in places like Camp 22. The sole focus was on setting free the North’s fifth columnists in the South. This implicitly restrained the South’s will to arrest others who were exposed, some of whom tried to manipulate the Seoul mayoral election and may have penetrated the Blue House itself. To Pyongyang, allowing a few brief, carefully monitored meetings between South Korean abductees and their family members was a small price to pay for this gain.

4. The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.

“Balanced development” sounds like a formula for using South-to-North subsidies to level out the widening economic gap that had become a threat to Kim Jong-il’s domestic legitimacy. It explains how Pyongyang viewed nukes as a means to achieve economic prosperity as well as national hegemony (which is just what its propagandists told the North Korean people after the Great Famine).

As for cooperation in “the history, language, education, technology, culture, sports, and social sectors,” this would mean a politicized rewriting of history, introducing North Korean agitprop into classrooms and school textbooks (as the hard left Korean Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union has been repeatedly caught doing), and using sporting events to whip up nationalist and pro-confederation sentiments among South Koreans. If you say it can’t be done, you weren’t living in South Korea after the 2000 summit, watching this sentiment catch fire. That same sentiment still survives.

5. The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.

Roh Moon-hyun’s 2007 sequel to the 2000 Joint Declaration reaffirmed the 2000 Joint Declaration and built on Pyongyang’s gains in new ways. Unfortunately, Roh Moo-hyun’s aides destroyed the transcript, so we can only approximate the actual terms, some of which are still a matter of controversy in South Korea today. We’ll turn to that controversy later in this post. In the interests of brevity, I’ll mention the more significant ones.

2. South and North Korea are to work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology, system.

Pyongyang would surely interpret this as a call to avoid criticizing the North’s crimes against humanity. In retrospect, it clearly led up to Park Geun-hye’s 2014 agreement to refrain from “slander” of the North’s system. Park was no friend of free speech herself, and freedom of speech is not an ideal with a broad or deep constituency in South Korea, where governments on both the left and the right routinely censor their critics. Indeed, I often doubt the depth of that constituency here, such as among the academics and policy-makers who hardly raised a peep about the cyberterror threats that shut down “The Interview.” For all his prescient warnings about the dangers of tolerating censorship from abroad, Barack Obama did nothing about it. Again, Pyongyang’s own words are the best evidence of its intent.

Pyongyang holds the very idea of free speech in contempt. Not only has it used threats of violence to censor it in South Korea, but it has done so in Europe, in Southeast Asia, and here, in the United States.

3. South and North Korea are to ease military tensions, hold defense ministerial talks in November in Pyongyang to discuss ways of supporting inter-Korean economic cooperation and easing tension.

The agreement to “ease military tensions” might have won Pyongyang an end to military exercises that keep the South reader to deter a North Korean attack, but the elections of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye forced Pyongyang to defer that demand. Now, with the election of Moon Jae-in, the Chinese, left-of-center academics, and presidential advisor Moon Chung-in are trying to give this one to Pyongyang as a “freeze-for-freeze.” Pyongyang has balked at freezing its WMD programs, so Moon’s government is now seizing on the Olympics as an excuse to give Pyongyang a unilateral freeze next year.

The reference to “inter-Korean economic cooperation” probably refers to South-to-North subsidies like Kaesong and Kumgang. Remember the context: this agreement came as not long after U.S. actions against Banco Delta Asia had forced Kim Jong-il to sign the February 2007 Agreed Framework II, and almost exactly a year after the U.N.’s first Chapter VII sanctions resolution against North Korea, UNSCR 1718. Clearly, Pyongyang was thinking in terms of using South Korea to undermine sanctions intended to disarm it.

4. The two sides agree on the need to end the current armistice and establish permanent peace.

If Pyongyang sees confederation as its mechanism for ruling the South, it sees “peace” talks — the long-standing objective of its simpaticos here in the United States — as its vehicle for bullying the South into unilateral disarmament and confederation. To get to “peace,” it will first demand an end to the “hostile policy,” which means an end to sanctions, the withdrawal of U.S. forces starting with missile defenses, and an end to criticism of the North, particularly over its crimes against humanity. You can read it all right here, in Pyongyang’s own words. Scroll down.

5. The two sides are to create a special peace zone around Haeju in North Korea and nearby areas.

This brings us to why we have no transcript of the 2007 summit. Roh’s concession of South Korea’s maritime boundary — really, the maritime extension of the DMZ — at the end of his presidency and shortly before a presidential election would prove more controversial than Roh had guessed. Roh’s aides made sure to destroy the transcript before his more conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, took office and started up the government computers where it had been saved.

Oh, and here’s some trivia for you. One of the aides who prepared and destroyed that transcript was Cho Myoung-gyun, who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng, Cho seemed to credit a hypothesis for Pyongyang’s intentions similar to the one I’ve advanced; he also said this will “never happen.” Cho was indicted for destroying the transcript in 2013, but a court acquitted him on the ground that what he deleted was only a draft and therefore not really a presidential document at all (good luck telling a federal judge that in a Freedom of Information Act case here). Another difference between the U.S. and South Korean systems? Double jeopardy! There, prosecutors can appeal acquittals. Cho’s case is still pending in South Korea’s highest court.

One need only look at the map to see why this would have been such a dangerous concession. Depending on its breadth, this “peace zone” could have ceded South Korea’s control over the airspace through which many of the flights to Incheon Airport must pass, and over the sea lane that serves the port of Incheon and protects the Yellow Sea islands. This is Seoul’s economic jugular. By cutting it, Pyongyang could blackmail Seoul with the threat of a partial blockade, leading to panic, capital flight, and recession. That happens to fit perfectly with what Thae Yong-ho posited in his congressional testimony last month.

7. South and North Korea are to actively push for humanitarian cooperation and expansion of the reunions of separated families.

Naturally, this aid would be “humanitarian” in the same sense that North Korean workers at Kaesong were paidwages.” It would mean a resumption and expansion of South Korean subsidies to the North to enrich the Pyongyang elites at the expense of South Korean taxpayers. Above all, it would turn any U.S. requests that other cut trade relations with Pyongyang into a punchline, thereby undermining our last chance to disarm Pyongyang peacefully — and thus, making war almost inevitable.

In the abstract, the idea of inter-Korean peace and cooperation sounds great to us and even greater to South Koreans. But a close reading the terms of the statements, and a retrospective understanding of how left-leaning governments have tried to implement them, lends itself to more paranoid interpretations. The agreements weren’t fully implemented, but that’s not because Roh, in particular, didn’t try. With Pyongyang near nuclear breakout, I expect that we’ll soon see Pyongyang press its demands for Moon Jae-in (who gives the impression of being an easy mark) to implement past joint statements, and perhaps to sign an even more ambitious one. 

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