The already troubled relations between Seoul and Pyongyang further deteriorated in the first half of 2016, due to a series of dramatic events. The year 2016 began with North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on January 6, which was internationally condemned and led to the adoption of new sanctions against Pyongyang. However, luckily it was not – as Pyongyang claimed - a hydrogen bomb test. One month later, on February 7, Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, claiming that it was putting a satellite into orbit. Other countries such as Japan and South Korea took the test for a ballistic missile test. More than being the umpteenth provocation aimed at the international community, these two tests were probably really aimed at the domestic North Korean audience, meant to demonstrate Kim Jong Un’s strength and resolution ahead of the upcoming Workers’ Party Congress, which will be held on May 6 - the first congress since 1980. South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the missile launch a “challenge to world peace” and decided to intensify talks with Washington on the deployment of the so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system able to intercept missiles during their final phase of flight. South Korea’s Minister of Unification, Hong Yong-pyo, decided to interrupt any form of cooperation with the North in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), arguing that the profits were used to finance Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Almost immediately Hong was forced to admit that he had no evidence to substantiate such an allegation, but at that point the government decided to stick with the allegation all the same. Something similar had already occurred in 2013 when relations between North and South Korea had become strained for similar reasons: a North Korean rocket launch in December 2012 followed by a nuclear test at the beginning of the following year. In April 2013, Pyongyang decided to pull out the 55,000 North Koreans working at KIC and terminate the joint venture. The complex, however, was reactivated a few months later, following long and tortuous negotiations, bringing the two parties to the ratification of a five point agreement, which – upon the insistence of President Park’s administration – called for the exclusion of Kaesong from future diplomatic and security controversies, as formulated in the first clause of the accord. Therefore, it came as a surprise that it was Seoul – on February 10, 2016 – to decide that the KIC, the last relic of the Sunshine Policy, was to be terminated indefinitely. The nullification of the 2013 agreement, which also probably puts an end to the scarcely implemented Trustpolitik strategy introduced by Park Geun-hye, renders the current South Korean administration untrustworthy and could bring inter-Korean relations to a point of no return. In contrast to what has been claimed, the closure of Kaesong does not have significant repercussions for the North Korean economy: if all the proceeds – 100 million USD annually – flowed directly into the hands of the regime, that would represent a mere one percent of the North’s annual trade volume, and would be highly insignificant when compared to the 2.48 billion USD earned by Pyongyang through its trade with China in 2015. The evidence according to which the regime used the revenues from Kaesong to finance its nuclear and missiles programs has yet to be produced (as is arguably the case for any payments to Pyongyang). Furthermore, it should not go unmentioned that allowing money to flow into the North Korean market is of the utmost importance for the rise of a different ‘political awareness’ and the consolidation of a North Korean middle class, which has already made its appearance and could challenge the regime. Indeed, it is not a secret that the North’s military and the regime itself have always considered Kaesong a potential threat. In addition, it is possible that Pyongyang will compensate the closure of the KIC by putting more emphasis on the development of economic zones along the borders shared with China.
As many analysts suggest, one of the reasons for Seoul’s decision to close KIC indefinitely – which is also enormously harmful to many businesses in South Korea – could have been the important legislative elections held on April 16. In fact, President Park was comforted by the changing perceptions among the South Korean public: Gallup Korea confirmed through an opinion poll that 55 per cent of the South Korean population favored the closure of Kaesong. To be sure, the defeat of South Korea’s ruling conservative party in the elections could have implications also for the future course of inter-Korean relations. This does not automatically translate into a sudden policy shift away from hardline policies towards Pyongyang advocated by President Park, but South Korean Liberals have certainly acquired the strength and confidence to loudly criticize her policies and can now hope to win the presidential elections at the end of 2017. In that case, it is very likely that Seoul’s North Korea policy would change, allowing for a more proactive stance towards the North and the restoration of exchanges and economic ties. Despite the introduction of new sanctions by the UN Security Council at the beginning of March – banning the export of materials such as gold, titanium ore and rare earth metals from North Korea and the import of all weapons and aviation fuel, while allowing trade in coal, iron ore and oil so long as it is for “livelihood purposes” – Seoul decided to enact additional unilateral sanctions, further amplifying the distress in inter-Korean relations. Indeed, South Korea went further than the UNSC resolution (2270), deciding that foreign ships that have visited North Korea in the previous 180 days will be banned from entering South Korean waters. Through this measure Seoul hopes to prevent third countries from doing business with Pyongyang. In addition to blacklisting more indi-viduals and business entities doing business in North Korea, Seoul intends to convince its trade partners to limit economic exchanges with Pyongyang: this measure is in particular addressed at China, which remains North Korea’s main trading partner. South Korea has also decided to suspend its trilateral trade agreement with Pyongyang and Moscow on the Khasan-Rajin project, which includes construction of a railway line between Russia and North Korea and later the transportation of Siberian coal to South Korea by ship. The decision to suspend the agreement led to Russia threatening to veto the above-mentioned UN sanctions resolution against the North.
In March, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) claimed that North Koreans had hacked into the cell phones of high-ranking government officials. Even though these claims were not supported by evidence, the NIS demanded the passage of a cyber security bill that would permit the monitoring of online communication and establish a new body under the auspices of the NIS. The tensions were aggravated by the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, the large military maneuver jointly and annually conducted by South Korea and the United States. As every year the maneuver was viewed by Pyongyang as s test for launching an imminent attack on North Korea While South Korean-U.S. military drills have in the past fo-cused on allegedly defensive scenarios, this year the two militaries simulated offensive maneuvers under the new Operational Plan 5015 that includes pre-emptive attacks on North Korean installations and the assassination of key North Korean officials.
Today, inter-Korean relations have arguably reached a new low point. To be sure, this is a result of North Ko-rean intransigency and the recklessness of Pyongyang’s leader. However, Seoul’s recent myopic policies have made sure that the Trustpolitik of Park’s administration (never really implemented) now finds itself in the dustbin of history. President Park Geun-hye has opted for the shortcut of scoring political points at home while passively embracing the isolation and condemnation of Pyongyang set forth by the international community. This situation will likely bring about further repercussions, creating an irreconcilable fracture between the two sides on the peninsula.
Antonio Fiori, professore associato, Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche e Sociali, Università di Bologna