South Korea’s Failed Crisis Diplomacy with North Korea

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October 22, 2020 Topic: South Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: South KoreaPeace RegimeMoon Jae-inKim Jong-unNorth Korea

South Korea’s Failed Crisis Diplomacy with North Korea

Time and time again Seoul tries the same approach in response to North Korean provocations.

The image of Moon Jae-in at Rungrado Stadium, Pyongyang, giving a speech to 150,000 North Koreans is amazingly moving. The image represented hope that the Korean Peninsula was entering a new era of peace and prosperity. However, just over two years later, hope has yet to materialize, and peace and prosperity will require more than crisis diplomacy. 

Crisis diplomacy is the interaction between countries under a heightened threat of systemic change or conflict. An aggressor uses provocations and the threat of conflict to force a partner to back down to secure objectives. A respondent attempts to resolve tension to avoid unmanageable conflict in the future. Crisis diplomacy involves close political control over military engagement; coordination between partners and allies; and clear signaling by each state to avoid inadvertent escalation. 

Since democracy was installed in South Korea, inter-Korean relations have followed a trajectory of North Korea being the aggressor, conducting limited provocations, followed by Seoul managing, defusing, and re-grouping. South Korean elites have pursued high-level summits or talks, with limited objectives during periods of crisis. Such diplomacy has resulted in short-term cessations of escalations, while offering little in incentives to stop provocations in the long-term. 

The marketability of crisis diplomacy to the citizenry and allies, weakens as threats decline, placing a time limit on diplomatic activities prompted by North Korea’s belligerence. This kind of diplomacy offers few tools for changing the main causes of tension. It is a band-aid for a surgical wound, unless long-term solutions are offered. 

The dynamic on the Korean peninsula shifted when the Trump government reversed roles, becoming the aggressor by threatening maximum pressure. South Korea was left by itself in the crisis diplomacy respondent role, and reacted by holding three inter-Korean summits in April, May and September 2018, helping coordinate the two U.S.-North Korea summits, and aiding in reducing immediate conflict. The Moon government then pushed for further talks to tempt economic inducements and sought joint economic projects. 

However, as 2019 ended, and 2020 began, crisis diplomacy lost its luster. Leadership summits offered a chance to start some initiatives but have not provided long-term visions. 

The honeymoon of crisis diplomacy has ended, and North Korea is being an aggressor once again in 2020. Pyongyang cut off all communication with Seoul on June 9 and threatened to re-station troops at border posts. On June 16 blew up the inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong and later Pyongyang murdered a South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official. Most recently, North Korea paraded even bigger missiles at their October 10 parade. 

Short-term wins have been promoted by the Moon administration, “three rounds of inter-Korean summits have produced immediate and tangible results… Two years since his inauguration, President Moon is pushing for a ‘new Korean Peninsula regime’—one which would dissolve the long-entrenched regime of Cold War conflict, division and dispute and replace it with a new order of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and prosperity.” This sounds great in a nationalist speech but offers little in policy prescription. What is required is more “innovative, creative diplomacy and coalition-building is required to overcome deeply entrenched, intractable international problems.”

Moon’s style of decision-making is a systemic problem among South Korean elites, especially progressives. Elites promise epochal change in their interactions with North Korea during periods of crisis diplomacy. Thus, any shift in North Korean behavior is followed by reassurances that North Korea is permanently changing due to South Korea’s involvement. The Roh Moo-hyun government insisted North Korea had launched a reform path that was irrevocable. Lee Myung-bak, supposedly hardline and anti-communist, initially responded to North Korea sinking the ROKS Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 with new sanctions against North Korea. However, by the end of 2010 “Lee began to talk as though reunification of the peninsula was not far off and of the need for a ‘reunification tax’ [by early 2011]... [T]he ROK was apparently still willing to discuss the possibility of a further summit.”

Another, perhaps more important but less understood, is Seoul’s insistence on South Korean centrality in any development on the peninsula. This stems from ethnic nationalist tendencies, and due to a loss of sovereignty under Japanese colonial rule. Seoul, thus, attempts to block any hegemonic force on the Korean Peninsula. This dates back to the first article of the 1972 July 4th South-North Joint Communiqué, “first, unification shall be achieved independently, without depending on foreign powers and without foreign interference.” Similar sentiments are included in the June 15th South-North Joint Declaration, October 4th Declaration, and the Pyongyang Declaration. If this is the starting point of inter-Korean interaction, coalition, middle power, or other responses will remain off the table. 

Seoul has options to secure a longer-lasting, more durable, peace process. But options must be sought out, well-planned, multilateral, institutionalized, and be removed from the nationalistic sentiments of the past. Wishful thinking, and the imposition of normative South Korean values of economic reform and democracy, will not prompt changes in North Korea. Kim Jong-un is not on an economic reform track as proven by his parading of new military technology

South Korea could have worked with other states to attempt to overcome the deeply entrenched international problems North Korea poses, from nuclear and missile programs to conventional forces, humanitarian issues, or insecurity. They could have followed the Australian model of helping form the Cairns Group in 1986, which saw major opposition to multilateral trade liberalization disappear. Or, they could have done what Canada did with the Ottawa Treaty.

The Moon government has decided against such epochal shifts. Instead Moon has promoted the idea that quick fixes will lead to long-term shifts in Pyongyang. In his Twitter statement celebrating the second anniversary of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, Moon suggested “the inter-Korean agreements have not been implemented in a prompt manner. Nevertheless, our commitment toward peace must be steadfast…The agreements made on September 19, 2018, must be implemented. Nothing in history fades away; seeds sown in history are ordained to grow and eventually bear fruits some day in the future in any form.” Similarly, after the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries officer was shot dead, the South Korean government immediately called for a restart of talks, with a key advisor suggesting an inter-Korean summit was required. 

At this stage there are no signs that Moon Jae-in plans to move beyond the unimaginative, commonly fruitless, confines of crisis diplomacy.

Dylan Stent is a Korea Foundation Graduate Studies Fellowship Recipient. He is also a PhD Student at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington.

Image: Reuters