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Is the time for rapprochement with North Korea Coming?

Hayoun Ryou was Visiting Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 22, 2007

    As the time for North Korea’s “disablement” of its nuclear facilities draws closer, the six- party nations, especially the United States and South Korea, have stepped up their efforts to ensure the process reaches its desired outcome. The sixth-round of the six-party talks successfully reached a ‘Second-Phased Action’ on October 3, 2007 outlining a road map for the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear programme including the 5-megawatt electric reactor, the fuel fabrication plant and the radiochemical laboratory in Yongbyon by the end of the year. In return for disabling its nuclear activities, North Korea would receive from the US 950,000 tons of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) worth 106 million dollars or equivalent economic assistance, and a commitment from the US to remove its name from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    President Roh Moo-Hyun’s official visit to Pyongyang on October 3 – the first South-North summit meeting in seven years and only the second since 1948 – without doubt is a significant event for both Koreas. At the summit, the two sides agreed to make Haeju a special economic zone similar to Kaesong Industrial Zone and provide infrastructure improvement amounting to over US $50 billion. The Joint Statement not only dealt with economic aspects but also security issues, with both sides agreeing to transform the current armistice into a peace regime. In tandem with this historical event, coincidently, the sixth round of six party talks’ added to the euphoria of rapprochement in this Cold War remnant area. Furthermore, on November 1, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution supporting the ten points of the joint declaration made during the South and North Second Summit. Inter-Korean visits during January to September surged over 30 per cent as relations between the two Koreas expanded into various spheres, and trade correspondingly went up 12.7 per cent during the period. In addition, exactly a year after the North conducted its nuclear test, no telltale signs of the country’s nuclear programme were in evidence on October 9.

    While President Roh’s one-step-forward towards peace in the Korean Peninsula has gained him huge popular support – his standing in the polls have gone up 10 per cent – there are, however, issues of concern that needs adequate attention. In an effort to build trust, both the Korea’s have committed to seek “current armistice regime replaced by a permanent peace regime” and also establishing “special zone for peace and cooperation” in the Yellow Sea for preventing further clashes which occurred in 1999 and 2002. Putting aside these “active and constructive” commitments, Roh drew criticism from the Conservative National Grand Party by controversially stating that the Northern Limit Line (NLL) is not a territorial line but just something the UN Command drew on the map of the Korean Peninsula. Defense Minister Kim who accompanied him to Pyongyang categorically denied that Seoul has any plan to abandon the NLL and even told the National Assembly that the NLL constitutes a territorial concept. The Department of Defense always makes its position clear on this issue. It may be recalled that a former security chief of the Blue House and current researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) in a write up on the NLL in the Hankyoreh newspaper in August shared a similar point of view with President Roh. In a dramatic turn of events, as a result of the views expressed, his supervisor, Director of the Security Strategy Research Center, Shim Kyong Wook resigned soon after and the President of the Institute reconfirmed NLL as maritime territory in public.

    Since the US is actively involved in the disablement process, it considerably lays stress to the six-party talks. For President Roh, however, the inter-Korean relations have become a priority and, therefore, the proposal to establish a permanent peace regime in the peninsula that replaces the armistice in existence since the end of the Korean War (1950-53) is high on the agenda. While the US welcomed the summit between South and North it is simultaneously cautious over the inter-Korean initiatives fearing that it might undercut the significance of the Six Party Talks and shift the focus away from the disablement process.

    Intertwined in the efforts to establish a peaceful Northeast Asia, several hindrances could yet constrain or delay the process. First, the disablement process has still some distance to travel and while the signs are positive the next step towards ‘dismantlement’ will be a difficult proposition. Secondly, the US strategic compulsions and South Korea’s domestic constraints can create roadblocks to the disablement process. Hardliners in the US government have been dissatisfied with the current US policy towards North Korea and the Bush administration had to fight hard for a Congressional approval of 106 million dollars to provide North Korea with HFO consignment. For South Korea, the political line can switch around after the presidential elections and a hardliner can well upset President Roh’s effort at reconciliation. Thirdly, considering Pyongyang’s unpredictability, brinkmanship and its ability to manipulate ROK’s politics, there is a possibility that it can simply walk away from the disablement process and thereby plunge the peninsula into uncertainty.

    The Second Phase of Action Agreement has given a springboard for building a peaceful environment in Northeast Asia. Should the Agreement reach its logical conclusion then a rapprochement with North Korea is conceivable. The next two months will indeed be crucial.