Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies
Issue Brief #54
On July 24 2015, Don Oberdofer, an American expert on the Korean Peninsula and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, passed away at age 84. His book, “The Two Koreas”, published in 2000, provides an in-depth analysis of the historical background leading up to the division of Korea, as well as the competitive tension and confrontations that followed. It is considered a must-read for those studying Inter-Korean relations. In his book, he states that the Korean Peninsula has dramatic, inspiring moments, and powerful changes ahead – unpredictable changes we must be ready for, suggesting a positive shift in the dynamics of the Korean peninsula.
Could the two Koreas really create a positive dynamic under such circumstances? The impact of North Korea’s relations with the United States and China complicates the answer to this question. Currently, the United States awaits a change in North Korean attitudes with strategic guidance, following the sanctions imposed from the resolutions of the UN. On the other hand, China maintains close ties with North Korea, despite also participating in international sanctions on North Korea. Furthermore, considering the strengthening partnership between China and South Korea in recent years, it appears that utilizing the influence of China rather than the US may be effective in facilitating a shift in North Korea’s attitude. However, whether there should be pressure or involvement through China must be determined.
Recently, on September 2, President Park Geun-hye discussed resolutions regarding the September 19 Joint Statement and the UN Security Council at a summit with President Xi Jinping. Emphasizing her view against all activities stirring tension on the Korean Peninsula, President Park asserted that peaceful reunification as soon as possible will contribute to regional peace and stability. Additionally, President Park expressed gratitude for China’s assistance in relieving the tension in the Korean Peninsula in August. This can be interpreted as a request for China to sustain pressure against North Korea’s adventurist behavior. President Xi, on the other hand, mentioned the method of reunification through the autonomous diplomacy of the Korean people, which North Korea insists upon. At a regular briefing on September 7, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked whether North Korean Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae’s failure to meet China’s leader was an indication of dissatisfaction with North Korea. They responded that this was far from the truth. On the following day, September 8, the Global Times (Huánqiú Shíbào), a tabloid of the Communist Party, stated that just as the strengthened relations between South Korea and China has had little influence on South Korea’s relationship with the United States, improvements in China’s relations with South Korea should not weaken ties with North Korea. It was also emphasized that although the two countries are involved in many problems, such problems were under control and further harm can be prevented. This means that for China, North Korea and South Korea are not in a zero-sum game, and shows that China refuses to give up its alliance with North Korea.
The strengthened Sino-South Korean relations has created potential for improvements ahead in North Korea-South Korea relations, and the persisting alliance between China and North Korea suggests that perhaps South Korea must reevaluate whether asking for China to pressure North Korea is an effective option. After the August 25 Inter-Korean agreement, President Park’s September 2 visit to China has been the starting point for President Xi’s visit to the United States on September 22, the October summit conference held during President Park’s visit to the United States, and North Korea’s celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea on October 10. These are important events for facilitating positive dynamics on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, through its national official news agencies, North Korea has criticized President Park’s reunification diplomacy. In addition, North Korea has threatened a rocket launch and a fourth nuclear test. These may be watershed events for the progress in Inter-Korean relations before and after this Chuseok break.
Under these dynamic conditions, if South Korea and the rest of the international society continue to maintain a policy completely based around pressuring North Korea, this will create a deep sense of isolation for North Korea. It is highly likely that this will take the August 25 Inter-Korean agreement, accomplished with great difficulty, back to square one. The role of China’s leadership is especially significant. If Sino-North Korean relations deteriorate due to an increase in the intensity of pressure against North Korea, this will result in a disastrous outcome for both South Korea and China. Therefore, unless North Korea puts everything down, the pressure will reduce the viable peaceful methods of dispute resolution, and we will face misfortunes against the interests of South Korea and China. Just as the late Oberdorfer wrote in 2014, China’s level of influence continues to increase and as a result, the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula have become even more unpredictable. Unless North Korea is an ally China is willing to give up, South Korea must exhibit diplomatic abilities that will encourage the power of China’s single-handed influence on North Korea to become a creative energy through involvement, rather than destructive force from pressure. This may be the way in which positive dynamics in the Korean Peninsula arise.
Translated by Hyunju Ban