As published in the Australian Dongah Ilbo
Events in Northeast Asia have, as of recent, continued to wax and wane as they always have done. In comparison to the first few months of 2013, May has been suspiciously quiet and many are waiting for the next crisis to erupt - no doubt coming from the often volatile but ever-so entertaining Korean peninsula.
Among the latest headlines, proudly brought to us by Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, was news in early May that the US aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz had arrived in South Korea. The 97,000-ton Nimitz docked in Busan in preparations for joint search-and-rescue operations as well as sea-manoeuvring in cooperation with the South Korean navy.
North Korea’s state-run KCA did not miss the opportunity to criticise what it saw as an “extreme provocation” and a rehearsal for war, going further to state that “The risk of nuclear war in the peninsula has risen further due to the madcap nuclear war practice by the US and the South’s enemy forces.”
The naval drills went ahead without incident, further threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” being ignored by the Americans and South Korea as standard Pyongyang bellicose rhetoric.
Also popping up in headlines over the course of May has been the unenviable saga of Kenneth Bae. Reports claimed that Mr. Bae, a US citizen, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for “hostile acts against the state”. North Korea’s Central News Agency announced that the luckless Bae would be incarcerated in a “special prison” for the duration of his sentence for what Pyongyang described as “trying to establish an anti-Pyongyang base in the North.
Reports have suggested that Bae was carrying out missionary work on the border with China. He is not the first American to have become a guest at the North Korean state’s pleasure. Since 2009, five other American citizens have been detained, although in each of their cases, prominent clemency missions, headed by such figures as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, intervened to free these individuals in the early stages of their sentences.
Meanwhile, in what may be seen as a sign that relations between the North and South may be returning to a semblance of normality (as normal as things could every be) North Korea recently invited South Korean factory owners to discuss the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex. The complex, employing more than 53,000 North Korean workers in more than 120 South Korea factories, was considered by many as the best tangible expression of Kim Dae Jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’.
Following the North’s third nuclear test in February, however, it also became a victim of spiralling North-South tensions when North Korea pulled out all its workers from the complex and the South followed suit, withdrawing its managerial staff.
North Korean media announced it is ready to restart operations in Kaesong and would allow South Korean businessmen back into the special economic zone while also guaranteeing their safety. A spokesman for North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), announced,
“We have given permission for the visit and can even discuss the shipment of products at the industrial complex,” Yonhap news agency quoted the committee as saying.
The North’s offer was rebuffed by the South Korean government, Kim Hyung-suk, the South Korean ministry’s main spokesman, stating, “North Korea should realize that its attempt to split public opinion in our society no longer works, and must stop it immediately.”
The South remains weary of entering back into such ventures with the North, asking that North Korea first consider inter-governmental talks to formally resolve the issue. In a statement issued from the Blue House, South Korean President Park Geun-hye reaffirmed a commitment to reopening the factory complex, but only under a guarantee from the North that it would not again be used as a political tool in the future. As we head into June, a large question mark sits over the fate of Kaesong industrial park.
Finally, perhaps May will be best remembered for what many are claiming is a complete 180 degree turnaround from the vitriol exchanged between North and South over the last six months. On Wednesday (29th May), the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the Worker’s Party of North Korea, called for the replacement of the Korean War Armistice deal with a formal peace treaty.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, the statement, issued by the mouth organ of the North Korean state, announced, “a pressing need to replace the Armistice Agreement, which is a relic of the war, with a permanent peace regime”, and that the current state of affairs, benefits only the US in its desires “to stifle the DPRK by force”.
Although the jury seems to be out as to how Seoul, and the US, will react to this seeming overture to normality, it seems unlikely that any kind of peace deal will be brokered in the immediate future. On the contrary, the latest offerings are more likely to be interpreted as another example of Pyongyang’s skills at making stronger powers dance to their tune.
Making it entirely clear that they would not give up their nuclear deterrent capability in the face of “continuing US threats”, it seems prudent to ask, what is Pyongyang actually bringing to the table and are calls for a peace treaty simply one more in a continuous line of empty offers?
Although not comparable to the beginning of 2013, as we hit the halfway mark of this year, it is clear that May has not been without its dramas. With summer just around the corner in Northeast Asia, it seems that relations between the two Koreas may also be warming up. Although, as Korea-watchers and scholars of history alike can tell you, it could all change tomorrow.