SEOUL, South Korea – After marathon talks, North and South Korea have reached an agreement to defuse the rising tensions, which had created the potential for a military clash along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Both Koreas can claim they achieved what they wanted. But, as with any development on the Korean Peninsula, the agreement will be a Rorschach test for interpreting, as either the beginning of a long awaited breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, or yet another temporary defusing of confrontation that won’t lead to significant change.
While the risk of an immediate inadvertent military clash has receded, the underlying causes remain in place and the tense status quo remains.
The text has not been released yet, but it appears North Korea expressed regret, rather than issuing an apology for the landmine incident, which left two South Korean soldiers maimed.
While Pyongyang has never apologized for its decades of deadly attacks and terrorist acts, it has occasionally expressed regret and condolences.
Doing so lowered tensions, while not acknowledging regime responsibility. Past examples of this include the North Korean ax murder of two U.S. soldiers in 1976 and the stranding of a North Korean submarine on the South Korean coast in September 1996.
In return, Seoul vowed today that it would cease its propaganda broadcasts along the border that had infuriated the North Korean regime. South Korea had resumed the broadcasts in response to the landmine incident and vowed to expand them along the entire DMZ.
Pyongyang agreed to suspend its “quasi-state of war” and allow resumption of separated family reunions and civil exchanges. Both sides pledged follow-on talks to improve bilateral relations.
During his three years in power, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has followed the playbook of his predecessors by repeatedly raising and lowering tension on the Korean Peninsula. However, he has seemed to do so in a more erratic and unpredictable fashion, without a clear strategic objective in mind.
It remains to be seen whether today’s development is Kim’s coming into his own as a clever strategist or simply a belated realization that he had gone too far in risking military confrontation. The latter is far more likely.
Kim has shown himself to be just as resistant as his father and grandfather to implementing the political and economic reform necessary to significantly improve relations with Seoul. Indeed, he has ratcheted up political repression and directed security services to augment measures to prevent the contagion of foreign influences. Kim has also repeatedly threatened nuclear attacks against South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye can claim victory in forcing North Korea to acknowledge the landmine incident, though not its responsibility, and lowering its war-time status.
Follow-on talks may provide the catalyst for long-awaited North Korean reforms and improvements in bilateral relations. But the Korean landscape is littered with the shattered remnants of countless similar efforts that failed.
Today, dawn will break in Korea – “the land of the morning calm” – with greater hope. But, peace will continue to be maintained only through the continued presence of strong and vigilant South Korean and U.S. military forces.
As George Orwell wrote, people “sleep soundly in our beds [only] because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
That has not changed on the Korean Peninsula.
This article has been updated to correctly state Korea as “the land of the morning calm”.