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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

Y.H. Park: Inter-Korean Relations: Current State and Tasks Ahead

Since the first inter-Korean summit held in June 2000, South and North Korea have expanded mutual contacts and exchanges. The two Koreas have been developing inter-Korean relations of reconciliation and cooperation on a practical level. In other words, Seoul and Pyongyang have begun a process to end the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula by establishing a stable peace structure and ‘real’ talks for improving inter-Korean relations toward the long-term goal of unification.

Inter-Korean dialogue

Despite North Korea’s nuclear issue, inter-Korean dialogue and exchanges have been taking place on a regular basis with substantive development in each area of cooperation and exchanges. During the past four years, South and North Korea have held more than 110 talks in several fields at various levels, including 14 rounds of ministerial talks. Also, the contents of the talks were becoming specified. There are several reasons: South Korea’s two-track policy of improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North’s nuclear problem; North Korea’s policy to gain as much economic benefits as possible from South Korea; North Korea’s expectation for South Korea to persuade the United States to change its hard stance against North Korea; and North Korea’s dual policy to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Expansion in Inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation

Substantial progress was also made in exchanges and cooperation in economic and socio-cultural fields. The two Koreas agreed on an institutional mechanism to facilitate economic cooperation and exchanges. They signed economic agreements in four areas: investment protection, prevention of double taxation, clearing of accounts, and commercial dispute settlement. From such an institutional foundation, they are expected to promote more actively such major joint economic projects as development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mt. Kumgang tourism and development, and cross-border railroad connection. Some South Korean small and medium-sized companies are expected to move into a model complex of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and to start operation from the latter half of 2004. The roads linking the two Koreas, both in the east and west, are scheduled for opening in October 2004, while the opening of cross-border railroads are expected in late 2005.

Inter-Korean trade has also expanded considerably. The volume of inter-Korean trade exceeded $724 million in 2003, which accounted for 23.2 percent of the North’s total volume of external trade that year. South Korea has become North Korea’s second trading partner after China. During January through June 2004, inter-Korean trade volume stood at $326 million, up 21.0 percent from the same period in 2003.

At the same time, exchange of people expanded as well. Excluding the Mt. Kumgang tourists, 15,280 South Koreans traveled to North Korea in 2003. Some 1,000 North Koreans visited South Korea in 2003. Exchanges in the social and cultural areas have been continuously increasing.

Family reunion and other humanitarian issues

Although less extensive, some humanitarian issues, including those of separated families, are now being resolved. Following the inter-Korean summit, the two Koreas have exchanged ten rounds of visits by separated families. About 9,500 individuals met with their separated families. South Korea continues to exert its efforts to institutionalize separated family reunions through the construction of a Family Reunion Center. While North Korea maintains to deny the existence of any South Korean abductees and prisoners of war, South Korea continues to try to resolve the problem of South Korean abductees and POWs held in North Korea.

In order to mitigate the North’s food shortages, South Korea has provided a large amount of food to North Korea. In 2004, the amount of food assistance to North Korea will be 500,000 tons, including 400,000 tons of rice. The first-ever overland delivery of rice aid to North Korea began on July 20, 2004. The delivery of about 100,000 tons of domestic rice will be completed by mid-October 2004.

Military tension reduction and confidence building

Through the general-level talks in May-June 2004, South and North Korea took the first step toward inter-Korean military tension reduction. They made an agreement on the prevention of armed clashes in the West Sea, stopping propaganda activities in areas around the Military Demarcation Line, and removal of the means of propaganda in the area. The military authorities of the two Koreas successfully tested wireless communication between their naval vessels in the West Sea on June 14, 2004. The two sides also stopped all propaganda activities in the area near the Military Demarcation Line from 00:00 on June 15, 2004.

But North Korea has shown some irregularities in carrying out wireless communication, and its patrol ships violated the Northern Limit Line even after the agreement on the prevention of armed clashes in the West Sea. North Korea did not fully carry out its part of removing propaganda devices along the front line, either.
If North Korea agrees to continue holding general-level military talks on a regular basis and to resume Defense Ministers’ talks, the two Koreas will discuss measures to ease military tensions and build mutual confidence.

Also, North Korea’s nuclear issue remains a main hurdle against a stable and sustainable development of inter-Korean relations. Although both the United States and North Korea have put an emphasis on a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the nuclear stand off and have made more detailed proposals at the third round of six-party talks, there still remain difficulties in finding a middle ground. While the United States urged North Korea to follow the example of Libya, North Korea asked the U.S. to change its position first.

Change in North Korea

It is fair to say that North Korea has already started to change. The scope continues to enlarge and that the pace is accelerating. Just like Beijing and Hanoi in the past, Pyongyang is expected to expand its reform and opening up in the future. Although North Korea argues that its economic system is a socialist one, it seems inevitable that it must introduce more of the market economic operation into its socialist system.

The recent economic reform policies are clearly a good sign for North Korea to join the international economic system. However, in order to carry out economic reform measures successfully, it had better take bold actions to change its provocative behavior to invite foreign investment and assistance. North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, needs to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping.

Changing Relationships among the Two Koreas and the United States

For the past few years, South and North Korea have established a foundation for initiating a process of terminating the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula. The reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas has expanded. But the hostility between the United States and North Korea remains intact.

While inter-Korean relations are improving, there is increasing friction between South Korea and the United States. Recent political and societal changes in South Korea have given renewed impetus to anti-Americanism. It has become an overriding concern for some South Koreans that a tough U.S. policy toward North Korea would endanger the stability of the Korean Peninsula. Anti-American sentiment is likely to become more pervasive and persistent if the United States continues to conduct a unilateral foreign policy.

Tasks ahead

North and South Korea have long been in a state of distrust and animosity. Many of the peculiarities of the politics of inter-Korean relations have yet to change. There are still wide differences in views on and the ways to solve the impending issues. Thus, it is still premature to say that the relationship between the two Koreas is one of trust and stable cooperation. However, they have found common interests in improving inter-Korean relations. The North can secure some resources for its economic recovery from the South, while the South can obtain the North’s cooperation in maintaining stability and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Although U.S.-North Korean relations will be one of the decisive factors impacting the development of inter-Korean relations in the short run, both South and North Korea recognize the need to continue talks and negotiations.

It is likely that North Korea is tempted to exploit the improvement of inter-Korean relations as a leverage to facilitate talks with the United States, which remains doubtful of any serious change in the North. If North Korea wants to find itself surrounded by favorable conditions to successfully carry out reform measures, it had better follow a Chinese or a Vietnamese path. A fundamental prerequisite is to change its position on the nuclear issue.

South Korea is determined to push forward its North Korea policy in an effort to reduce tensions and promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation. But Seoul should urge Pyongyang to reciprocate its efforts to step up the improvement of inter-Korean relations, since the cooperation of the North can lead to better U.S.-North Korean relations and help recover the North’s staggering economy.

So far, inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation in various fields have been undertaken or promoted mainly by South Korean businessmen and others visiting North Korea. But, if economic transactions are to be institutionalized, two-way exchanges and cooperation should develop. Along with expanded economic exchanges and cooperation, social and cultural exchanges should also be institutionalized.

Most importantly, North Korea should recognize the need to take a new paradigm of interdependence in order to join in the building of a common security system in Northeast Asia as well as to make itself a sustainable system.


It is expected that more active inter-Korean economic exchanges and cooperation will be developed. Through on-going projects such as Kaesong Industrial Complex construction and inter-Korean railroads connection, South Korean business firms will enhance their transactions with North Korean counterparts. They will also seek an opportunity to take part in North Korean social overhead capital projects.

While North Korea will expand its relations with South Korea, it will continue to keep its stance that the party concerned in the negotiations involving military issues on the Korean Peninsula is Washington, not Seoul. South Korea will try to persuade North Korea to have direct talks on the military issues, in order to establish a durable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea will also enhance its efforts to encourage North Korea to be more responsive to the final dismantlement of its nuclear programs. Once the North accepts to change its stance on the nuclear programs, inter-Korean relations can be accelerated, with new projects of economic cooperation offered by the South. The relationship between the United States and North Korea is also likely to see a breakthrough. In such a situation, we can proceed to build a multilateral security framework in Northeast Asia.

Excerpts from a presentation given at the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace Assembly 2004, “Establishing a World Culture of Heart: Innovative Approaches to Peace in a Changing World,” in Seoul, Korea, July 2004

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