The ROK and Dealing with North Korea: Change is an Uphill Battle


2012-11-01 by Richard Weitz

The focus of the recent 44th annual U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Security Consultative meeting between ROK National Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was managing the threat from North Korea.

“North Korea remains a serious threat to both of our nations and a serious threat to regional and global stability,” Panetta said. “Over the past year, North Korea has continued its pattern of defiance and provocative actions, including the unsuccessful test of a ballistic missile capability. “Minister Kim and I reaffirmed that North Korean aggression or military provocation will not be tolerated,” he continued, “and that we will continue working shoulder to shoulder to demonstrate our combined resolve.”

For a long time, South Korea’s policy toward the DPRK focused on being able to repel a North Korean invasion in partnership with the United States. Starting in the 1980s, the ROK’s policies began to change, notably by reaching out to Moscow and Beijing. After he became president in 1998, Kim Dae-jung adopted the “Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea, which was continued by his successor, Roh Moo-Hyun (2003–2008). This policy led to increased exchanges between Koreans in both countries but not to an enduring political settlement.

For decades, resisting another North Korean invasion remained the ROK’s core national security goal.

During the Cold War, South Korean officials protested strenuously whenever it appeared that the United States or other Western governments were interested in diplomatically engaging the DPRK. The two Koreas still technically remain in a state of war. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Furthermore, South Korea is not even a signatory to the armistice agreement, which was signed by the governments of North Korea and China on one side, and the U.S.-led United Nations Command on the other. As part of their commitment to anticommunism, South Korean governments deployed over 50,000 ROK troops to South Vietnam to combat the communists there. They also participated vigorously in U.S. efforts to contain the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The external posture of South Korea in general, and toward North Korea in particular, began a new chapter in the 1980s. While retaining its previous goals of enhancing political legitimacy, military security, and economic development by maintaining close ties with the West, South Korea greatly expanded its diplomatic horizons by launching its ambitious “Northern Diplomacy.” The approach aimed to reconcile the ROK’s traditional ties with the West with its new opportunities in the East. In particular, the new diplomatic strategy involved the pursuit of wide-ranging relations with communist bloc countries as well as deepened contacts and dialogue with North Korea.

Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock) 

The Northern Policy was successful in expanding the ROK’s ties in sports, trade, and diplomacy. By the beginning of 1990, the ROK had diplomatic relations with more than 130 countries. Meanwhile, South Korea emerged as the world’s tenth largest economy in the late 1980s. Economic reforms and the open-door policies of socialist countries, coupled with their recognition of Seoul’s economic growth, pushed economic trade and cooperation between South Korea and socialist countries into full swing.

South Korea’s relations with the DPRK began to improve noticeably after the February 1998 inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung, who led the ROK government to adopt a “Sunshine Policy” (officially known as “the Policy of Reconciliation and Cooperation towards North Korea”) toward the DPRK.

This policy, which ROK President Roh Moo-hyun largely continued from 2003 to 2008 under the moniker “Peace and Prosperity Policy,” sought to improve relations with the North Korean government through negotiations and diplomatic, economic, and other inducements to coax the regime out of its self-destructive isolation and to reassure the DPRK leadership about its security. These enticements include encouraging other countries to engage with North Korea, providing increased humanitarian and economic assistance, postponing negotiations on the most difficult issues dividing the two countries, and helping reassure the North Korean regime about its security concerns in the hope that a more benign security environment will encourage the DPRK leadership to pursue political and economic reforms.

Roh believed that North Korea developed nuclear weapons in response to American threats and in order to induce Washington to engage in a dialogue. His own administration feared that rash U.S. actions would precipitate a war on the peninsula, which would prove disastrous for South Korea no matter what its outcome.

The Roh administration also wanted to promote the DPRK’s economic reform while integrating the country into East Asian economic processes, hoping that such developments could help stabilize North Korea in the short-term while providing incentives and leverage for moderating its foreign policy over the long run. The Roh approach implicitly assumed that the North Korean government will not collapse soon and that the DPRK was prepared to alter policies that most threaten South Koreans.

Although cross-border trade and other civil society exchanges increased, Seoul’s success in improved relations with Pyongyang’s socialist allies did not result in substantially improved relations with Pyongyang.

In addition, the policy negatively affected the traditional relationship between South Korea and the United States.

Conservative Lee Myung-bak, who became president in 2008, scaled back the concessions to the DPRK and focused on reducing ROK-U.S. tensions. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, President Lee has joined the United States in insisting that the DPRK end its nuclear weapons program as part of an inter-Korean peace deal.

The DPRK’s provocative actions in 2010—the sinking of the ROK warship Cheonan and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island–prompted a noticeable hardening in South Korean attitudes towards Pyongyang.

ROK leaders believe that the DPRK was pursuing its traditional strategy of first trying to intimidate South Korea through provocative actions and then demanding food, economic assistance, diplomatic engagement, and other concessions to cease its threatening activities.

Lee’s government has sought to escape this situation by conditioning any new concessions on North Korea’s ending its provocative actions and taking concrete steps to acknowledge its responsibility for the incidents.

The Lee administration’s “pragmatic diplomacy”–which aims at strengthening the ROK’s traditional alliance with Washington, deepening ties with Beijing and Moscow, as well as restoring trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States while pressing encouraging North Korea to abandon nuclear facilities—achieved some success.

The country’s elevated international status was in evidence during the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, when many of the world’s most powerful leaders spent hours conferring with Lee and one another on how to avert the DPRK’s upcoming “satellite” launch or at least manage its consequences in a way that would not lead to yet another DPRK nuclear test.

But Seoul’s attempt to restart dialogue with North Korea has not succeeded.

In January 2011, the ROK government made a major concession by no longer requiring that the DPRK government officially apologize for the Cheonan’s sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling before resuming direct low-level talks. Instead, the ROK government indicated that it would seek assurances that the DPRK will take “responsible measures” for the incidents and cease its provocative actions.

A ROK Foreign Ministry official explained that the South Korean government considered it important to respect the concerns of the other Six-Party participants and not block the Talks’ resumption on the single issue of a DPRK apology for its reckless incidents. But plans for a ministerial-level meeting collapsed with North Korea walked out after Seoul demanded acknowledgment of North Korean responsibility for the RKS Cheonan sinking from Pyongyang.

President Lee has conditioned new aid to a cessation of DPRK provocations and concrete concessions regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear program and other past misdeeds.

The DPRK media has responded with a vicious and personal campaign of vitriol against Lee.

Further efforts to engage the new DPRK leadership have made little headway, suggesting that Pyongyang is waiting to see the outcome of the 2012 ROK presidential and legislative elections.