North Korea has recently made a string of provocations that appear well-measured to boost its position without stifling the burgeoning reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas and subjecting itself to additional sanctions from the international community. It seems a reasonable assumption that the North may go further to raise tensions a few more notches in the coming period.
This situation shows that Seoul officials need a more sophisticated and flexible approach toward Pyongyang than adhering to pronounced principles in handling inter-Korean ties.
They touted the latest round of reunions between families separated in the 1950-53 Korean War, which took place late last month, as proving the effectiveness and relevance of the Korean Peninsula trust-building process advocated by President Park Geun-hye. It may be said that her administration’s principled stance forced Pyongyang to back off and accept Seoul’s proposal for family reunions regardless of South Korea and the U.S. conducting annual joint military exercises.
In her speech last Saturday marking the 95th anniversary of a Korean uprising against Japan’s colonial rule, Park proposed to the North that the two sides hold reunions of separated families on a regular basis. Seoul on Wednesday suggested that the two Koreas hold Red Cross talks next week to discuss the matter.
Pyongyang met Park’s address with the firing of two missiles and seven short-range rockets into the sea off its east coast Monday and Tuesday, respectively. The latest provocative moves came after it fired multiple rocket launchers on Feb. 21 and four missiles on Feb. 27 from the same area.
This may not necessarily be viewed as a response to Park’s proposal, but it can be seen as part of its reactions to the ongoing joint military drills between Seoul and Washington. A North Korean patrol boat violated the maritime border in the West Sea three times early last week at the start of the annual exercises.
The Key Resolve command post exercise ends Thursday, with the Foal Eagle combined field training continuing through mid-April. Pyongyang has condemned the joint drills as a rehearsal for an invasion of the communist state, countering them with its own military maneuvers.
The latest round of provocations also appears calculated to bolster its position in dealing with President Park’s administration.
The North gradually increased the range of the projectiles it fired from about 150 km to 220 km and then to 500 km, apparently attempting to put pressure on the South but stopping short of firing long-range missiles, which would raise international concerns.
Its tactic of mixing reconciliatory peace gestures with low-level provocations may be getting President Park and her aides to realize that laying a brick of confidence would not necessarily lead to a higher level of trust with the precarious regime in Pyongyang. Rather, what is believed to have been achieved could be overturned at any time by the North Korean leadership.
To carry forward the inter-Korean relationship under these circumstances, Park’s administration needs to be more proactive and creative and have a clear and concrete road map.
Massive incentives may be offered to the North to lead it to agree to regularize family reunions on a larger scale, as time is running out for the aging family members. If Pyongyang refuses, it will further highlight the inhumane character of the oppressive regime.
It is certain that any large-scale assistance and cooperation could be offered after North Korea takes irreversible steps to discard its nuclear weapons program. This doesn’t mean, however, that inter-Korean dialogue should not be pursued as much as possible.
Seoul needs to take the initiative in resuming talks with Pyongyang to reduce the chances of additional provocations and manage inter-Korean relations in a more stable manner. A useful option may be to restart the high-level talks held early last month to arrange for the latest round of family reunions.