“It’s déjà vu all over again.” The classic quote from the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, originally in reference to the home run chase between baseball greats Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961, could just as well describe the hand-wringing currently taking place from Beijing to Washington over North Korea’s planned missile launch in late 2012.
For the second time this year, North Korea is set to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions by attempting to launch a satellite into space in what many see as a thinly veiled effort to test North Korean ballistic missile technology. While these latest theatrics from Pyongyang don’t quite rival the drama that was the race to break Babe Ruth’s record, the hubris of a regime that repeatedly flouts world opinion and yet manages to emerge unscathed each time is truly a sight to behold.
Given the lack of leverage that the international community holds over Kim Jong-un’s government, this latest flare-up will undoubtedly yield similar results: a clucking of tongues and a wagging of fingers, but precious little that would cause the young leader to seriously consider altering his course of action. A spokesman for the Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea simply warned that if the North goes ahead with the launch, “sanctions should be fundamentally different in scope and content.” But unless the South is prepared to shut down the Gaesong Industrial Complex, where North Korean workers labor for South Korean employers, it is hard to see what further actions can be taken to punish North Korean intransigence. Considering that the South’s May 24 sanctions, which cut off virtually all trade and humanitarian assistance after the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, and the expanded UN sanctions resulting from the North’s failed satellite launch this spring are still on the books, this may just be diplomatic speak for “we’re out of ideas.”
Regardless of whether or not this planned launch succeeds, and after the inevitable condemnations are issued, both the Obama administration and the incoming South Korean government will have a choice to make: accept the status quo or start taking the necessary steps to change the security dynamic on the Korean Peninsula. For analysts, the advantage of speculating about North Korean motives means that one is rarely ever proven wrong – for my money the fact that the test is scheduled to take place right around the South Korean presidential election (slated for December 19) should be self-explanatory – but the real question is how much Seoul and Washington are willing to offer in order for Kim Jong-un’s government to start thinking seriously about giving up its nuclear program.
The North will not consider relinquishing its nuclear program without fundamental changes to the security dynamic in the region. Economic incentives alone are insufficient, as evidenced by the short-lived deal that the North agreed to in February to freeze its nuclear program and long-range missile tests in return for 240,000 tons of American food aid. Apparently, North Korean officials neglected to inform the Americans that the agreement failed to cover the period marking the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, which just happened to fall less than two months after the deal had been reached. Any hopes that this would mark a fresh start in negotiations with the new regime were thus quickly snuffed out.
A better approach for bringing North Korea back to the bargaining table would be for the next South Korean government to resurrect the 2007 summit accords made between the late Kim Jong-il and former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. Roh was termed out of office a few months after the summit, and the agreements—which included the creation of a joint West Sea fishing and maritime peace area and funding for a $4.5-billion special economic zone centered around the North Korean port city of Haeju—were suspended by the incoming right-wing Lee Myung-bak administration. This action led to a rapid deterioration in inter-Korean relations. Fortunately, both South Korean presidential candidates— Moon Jae-in, Roh’s former chief of staff, and Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late, controversial president-for-life Park Chung-hee—have expressed support for implementing the terms of the summit. This represents a positive change from the policy of the current government, and is a good starting point for discussions between the two sides.
Not so auspicious, however, is the two candidates’ steadfast defense of the so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL), the contested West Sea boundary separating North and South. In recent years, this area has developed into a flashpoint of conflict. Two years ago, the West Sea was the scene of two of the most serious military incidents since the end of the Korean War: the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The attack on Yeonpyeong resulted in the first civilian casualties since the armistice was signed in 1953, and marked the lowest point in inter-Korean relations since the nuclear crisis in 1994.
The NLL emerged as a campaign issue in October when Park’s Saenuri Party alleged that former president Roh had made a secret deal during the summit meetings to nullify the boundary. Given that evidence of these remarks has yet to be revealed publicly, it appears that the allegations were little more than a ham-handed attempt to damage Moon’s candidacy by portraying him as weak on national defense. During the first presidential debate last Wednesday, Park continued on this theme, claiming that Moon has changed his stance on the NLL and couldn’t be trusted on the issue. In response, Moon reiterated his support for the NLL as the maritime border in the West Sea and called the allegations “regrettable.” For its part, the North Korean regime has, predictably, rejected any talk of adhering to the border. It has instead reverted to familiar rhetoric denouncing the NLL as an illegal boundary imposed by American imperialists following the Korean War that the North has no intention of recognizing.
By emphasizing this as a campaign issue, the candidates risk poisoning the atmosphere for discussions before the next president is even sworn in. Not only that, but they are also painting themselves into a corner regarding future negotiations with North Korea, regardless of who wins the election. This is particularly discouraging because, while the West Sea area has been the scene of the worst violence between North and South since the end of the Korean War, it paradoxically offers the best hope to shake up the security dynamic in the region. Forging a comprehensive solution to the West Sea dispute along the lines of what was agreed to at the 2007 summit would be a major accomplishment following years of failed diplomatic initiatives, and could provide the momentum needed to address larger concerns, such as the North’s nuclear program and an eventual peace treaty to replace the now 59-year-old armistice agreement. It also has the advantage of being something that the South can negotiate directly without having to go though the ineffectual and now dormant forum of the Six Party Talks.
With the newly reelected President Obama seemingly content to let the next South Korean administration take the lead role in dealing with the North, it is crucial for that government to give itself some leeway on the NLL issue. Otherwise there is a real chance that diplomacy will lead nowhere and the status quo on the peninsula will remain unchanged. In that case, it won’t be long before we get that feeling of déjà vu all over again.
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"Deja Vu on the Korean Peninsula" is republished with permission of Foreign Policy In Focus