The Buzz

Compromise Found: Korea Walks Back from the Brink of Disaster

Senior representatives of the two Koreas completed three days of marathon negotiations to avert further escalation of military tensions on August 25 at 12:55 a.m. local time. Despite hours spent at the negotiating table, the agreement itself is relatively short and straightforward. However, the fact that it took so long to reach the agreement underscores the difficulty both sides had in allowing each other to save face despite high tensions.

The main trade-off in the agreement involves North Korea’s expression of regret regarding South Korean soldiers injured in an August 4 land mine explosion at a South Korean guard post adjacent to the DMZ. The statement constitutes an indirect admission of responsibility for the incident, which North Korea had denied prior to talks. In return, South Korea agreed to cut off propaganda loudspeakers from noon on Tuesday absent any surprises at which time North Korea demobilizes its troops from the current war footing.

Longer-term, the two sides agreed to hold Red Cross meetings in early September to plan for family reunions later that month during fall harvest holidays, and both sides agreed to promote civilian-level exchanges. In addition, both sides pledge to continue high-level talks in Pyongyang or Seoul.

The implementation of these steps should shift the focal point of the relationship from military tensions to exchanges and cooperation. However, inter-Korean pledges to engage in exchanges or to hold family reunions are historically breached as often as they are honored.

The main lesson learned from the rising tensions and negotiations is that both sides are vulnerable to each other. (South Korea refuses to bear the costs of North Korean provocations and its economy is vulnerable to spikes in military tensions while North Korea fears its polity is increasingly vulnerable to South Korean propaganda dissemination.) But admission of vulnerability may lead either to closer inter-Korean relations or to the possibility of exploitation of the weakness of one side by the other.

With this modest agreement, both sides have also shown that they have the wherewithal to negotiate their way out of a crisis. For this reason, the test of whether this agreement marks a real turning point in inter-Korean relations will lie in the ability of both sides to keep their agreements and to institutionalize future dialogue and cooperation in such a way as to minimize their respective points of vulnerability.

This piece comes courtesy of CFR and Forbes.