Water Under the Bridge on the Korean Peninsula

Water Under the Bridge on the Korean Peninsula

Earlier this year the Korean peninsula was anything but stable. The third North Korean nuclear test on February 12th sparked fresh rounds of bellicose rhetoric and actions on both sides of the border, with the North Korean military taking on a particularly reactive position. At the head of the ensuing drama were Kim Jong-un, the leader in the North yet to be fully established, and the recently elected Park Geun-hye in the South.

The two regional great powers were also heightening tensions. On the one hand, Barack Obama’s strategic ‘pivot to Asia’ had increased the U.S. regional military presence to over 28,000 troops, and provocative military exercises with South Korea were abundant. On the other hand, the Chinese leadership – traditionally seen as reluctantly tolerating bad behavior from Pyongyang – made it clear that this time they were not going to play along, and supported stronger UN sanctions against North Korea.

For weeks the headlines were filled with questions over what was going to happen on the peninsula. Many were genuinely worried that things could escalate, and there were several symptoms that differentiated this security situation from those in the past. Not only was there the unprecedented closure of the Kaesong industrial complex (a rare opportunity for North and South Korean economic cooperation to flourish), but even the military hotline was cut, erasing the possibility for direct contact between the two armies. This meant there was a greater chance of an accident happening with devastating consequences due to misinterpreted signals from either side. For instance, at one point a South Korean soldier was spooked by some local wildlife and ended up firing a few rounds. Fortunately this was not met with a response from the North. The future was very difficult to predict, but most attempts were colored in a darker tone.

Yet, at the moment many of those concerns seem unfounded, and relations between North and South have in some ways gone back to ‘normal’. The military hotline was restored, Pyongyang has retracted back into a defensive position, and talks are under way to reopen Kaesong for business. Indeed, this is firmly in line with how previous nuclear tests in the North have played out: Highly aggressive behavior is followed by ‘concessions’ from the North, coupled with promises to behave properly to ensure more aid and thus fuel the regime a little longer. If this is the case, then things should remain fairly passive on the peninsula for some time.

However, things do not always go as they have in the past, and current circumstances indicate that there is still cause for apprehension. North Korea is poorer and more alone than it has ever been before. Increased sanctions, a cold shoulder from Beijing, and loss of significant revenue from Kaesong may cause the Kim regime to take on more volatile behaviour. Recent cyber attacks on South Korean banks and the presidential office have been traced to North Korea, and one can wonder how last week’s discovery of an arms transaction with Cuba ties into North Korea’s visions of the future.

On the other side of the border, Seoul is in the process of negotiating a new arrangement with its trans-pacific ally. The U.S.-South Korea Special Measures Agreement expires this year, and the recent events may have an effect on what a new military agreement will look like. Furthermore, though Park Geun-hye has promoted the idea of further engagement with the North alongside deterrence, she has also made it very clear that further aggression from the North will be met with a strong response.

All in all, the aftermath of the North’s nuclear test has more or less blown over, but it has definitely left an acrid taste in the mouths of South Korean leaders and their allies. This will undeniably have an impact on subsequent policy towards the North, and although there is not much room to maneuver within the stalemate, there will probably be more pressure to push those boundaries. Even if things seem a lot quieter than a few months ago, it is easy to say that things would be all the more serene without the nuclear test in the first place.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.