Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.08

Two Koreas and China

On August 11, South Korea proposed to North Korea that it engage in high-level talks to take place at Panmunjom. The administration of President Park Geun-hye has been focusing on its relations with China. It has not been very proactive in working to improve its relations with North Korea. To the contrary, the North has been more proactive than the South and it has been dissatisfied with the South's reactions to its overtures, which are not what the North had been hoping for.

As for South Korea, on the surface, it appears that it is now ready to build its relations with DPRK now that the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korea has concluded without any mishap and the relationship with China has now quieted down.

President Park, however, seems to have been reflecting on the South's relations with DPRK for some time. During the press conference at the beginning of the year, she stated that "reunification would be the jackpot." During her March visit to Germany, she announced the so-called "Dresden Declaration", which is based on recovering a sense of common identity between the peoples of the South and the North, cooperating in infrastructure development and resolving humanitarian issues in the North. This Declaration was based on the German precedent for reunification. She has made clear her ambition for full reunification, and not merely to improve relations with DPRK.

Subsequently the sinking of the Sewol had a great effect, including putting the brakes on her initiative. Now, however, things have calmed down. On July 15, President Park launched a presidential "Reunification Preparation Committee" to engage in preparations for reunification. The Committee will be chaired by the President herself and, with the participation of government officials and private experts, it will study the basic policies for reunification as well as concrete issues in preparing for reunification. At the Committee's first meeting in the beginning of August, President Park emphasized that the South Korean government does not aim at isolating the North. The proposal for holding high-level talks was initiated 4 days after the first meeting of the Reunification Preparation Committee. Officials at the South Korean Presidential Office Cheong Wa Dae have stated that this proposal is a first step toward realizing the Dresden Declaration (JoongAng Ilbo August 12.)

This series of events gives the impression that the South Korean Government is making serious efforts to improve the country's relations with North Korea; however, in the past, high-level talks have taken place repeatedly, only to become dormant. Therefore it is too early to determine whether this time the proposal will result in improving relations between the two countries. President Park is facing various problems at home and those could have nuanced impact on efforts to improve relations with DPRK.

For North Korea, President Xi Jinping's visit to South Korea must have been an unpleasant event. Furthermore, as it always does, DPRK criticized the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and, in June and July, it launched series of missiles to register its displeasure.

The United Nations regarded North Korea's missile launches as problematic. On July 17, the Chair of the UN Security Council condemned those launches and urged the DPRK to comply fully with the relevant Security Council resolutions. This response from the international community was inevitable, but, according to several Chinese newspapers, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was reportedly furious.

His reasons for his fury are problematic. DPRK has not changed its position of reacting favorably to the South and it plans to participate in the Incheon Asian Games as scheduled. If it decides not to participate, then its relations with the South go back to the drawing board, but as long as the plan is unchanged, its missile launches can be seen as just an expression of its limited displeasure, according to most observers.

The target of his indignation was, in fact, China. Rodong Sinmun dated July 24 referred to the "countries responsible for maintaining international justice that are remaining silent against the tyranny of the U.S." Even though no particular names were mentioned, it is obvious that the statement was directed at China.

July 11 marked the 53rd anniversary of the conclusion of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, but neither North Korea nor China participated in any commemorative events. July 27 was the 61st anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, but, in Pyongyang's commemorative ceremony, Kim Jong-un did not refer to China at all. August 1 was the day to commemorate the establishment of China's People's Liberation Army and military attachés from various embassies, including from South Korea, attended, but no military attaché from the North Korean embassy in China was in attendance. (Ta Kung Pao dated August 4)

During the Korean War, North Korea was saved by the participation of the Chinese army (formerly the Voluntary Army). The death toll for the Chinese army reached 400,000 (1 million, according to one estimate) and China-North Korea relations are said to be "a friendship sealed in blood." Given this historical fact, what is happening today is highly unusual and defies common sense.

As the series of military-related events in China and North Korea that are concentrated in the summer is almost over, on the surface, things will go back to normal. One needs to pay close attention to the future development of relations between North Korea and China and how that may somehow affect Japan and Russia.