Inter-Korean relations

28/08/2014 15:50

Written by Robert Willoughby

Three Principles Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comThe Three Principles Monument in Pyongyang is a 30m-high statue of two women from both Koreas leaning together over the highway © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

Since the Sunshine Policy of the 1990s, inter-Korean relations have, loosely put, improved, albeit with some sporadic outbreaks of violence. Curiously, for all the talk of Pyongyang’s unpredictability, it’s the North’s governors who are most consistent, with variables affecting peninsula relations depending on the political hue of who’s in Seoul or Washington, DC.

Annual US–ROK wargames always upset Pyongyang, while the North’s missile launches and nukes worry the whole region, as does the torpedoing of ships and shelling of islands. But then positive steps are taken amid the greatest showdowns.

In 2004 while the nuclear crisis raged, the two Koreas’ top military chiefs met in what was called a ‘breakthrough of  monumental proportions’, setting up a hotline, sharing radio frequencies and stopping propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ – and cutting the phone lines and the recommencement of insults are very obvious clues to displeasure.

Since the Sunshine Policy of the 1990s, inter-Korean relations have, loosely put, improved, albeit with some sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Tourist numbers to Kumgangsan climbed all through the tense noughties until the 2008 shooting of the South Korean visitor in Kumgangsan, where the DPRK has since confiscated the hotels. ROK firms still invest in the Kaesong industrial zone, although that too has closed in crises, notably during much of 2013. The effect of fluctuating intra-Korean relations impacts most bitterly on divided families, with people separated for decades finding their fleeting reunion cancelled at the drop of a diplomatic hat.

Hostilities are acted out online. The DPRK’s military, KWP and cabinet all employ thousands of agents engaged in denial-of-service attacks against the ROK’s state and financial institutions’ IT systems, causing hundreds of millions of won in  damage, and psy-ops including posting mass slanders against South Korean politicians and candidates. Little is known of any ROK counter-attacks, but the DPRK’s lack of IT-based infrastructure suggests there’d be not much damage anyway. But ROK’s intelligence agencies do very well in spreading scurrilous rumours about the leaders in Pyongyang, stories that the world’s media lap up, despite very little of these tales being verified in any way.

But at the time of writing, the process was under way for the return from the DPRK of the remains of dead US soldiers and the normalising of relations is at last being discussed on both sides.

The Korean War, for which Pyongyang blames the US, was in fact a Korean civil war arising out of a division only five years in the making.

When the US, DPRK and ROK will ever formally end the war is not known. Questions hang over whether the Koreans can ever unite, not least because their economic successes and political systems are so divergent, and new generations come to accept the status quo as permanent reality. Korea’s division in part stems from how factional they are and the violence that comes with that – see how often fistfights break out in Seoul’s parliament. The Korean War, for which Pyongyang blames the US, was in fact a Korean civil war arising out of a division only five years in the making.

Both sides want reunification on their own terms, and both sides engage in violence in various forms and depending on their governments – there is a theory that Pyongyang’s outbursts are cyclically inspired by their own five-year election cycle, for what that’s worth. Violence seen in the Sinchon Museum for example may well have been perpetrated by the Koreans themselves. When one considers how fierce the battles between different factions of monks became centuries ago, one might consider how bad factionalism can get in Korea.

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