Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) have shared a tumultuous and hostile relationship to say the least. Both nations are separated from each other by one of the world’s most fortified demilitarized zones, and the North has historically not shied away from launching bombastic verbal attacks at the South. However, earlier this week, the DPRK stated that it was suspending all cross-border communication links, including the inter-Korean hotlines between itself and the South, a rather unexpected move of aggression after two years of relative detente between the two countries.
North Korea’s positioning is in response to actions of South Korean activist groups, mostly consisting of North Korean defectors, that have sent anti-Pyongyang and pro-democracy leaflets across the border via balloons. The decision was largely spearheaded by Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a figure who has seen an increasingly high-profile role in the DPRK’s leadership over the last few months.
Furthermore, the move comes merely five days after Kim Yo-jong was given control over relations with the South. Last week, Yo-jong labeled North Korean defectors as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs,” severely chastising their roles in promoting anti-DPRK propaganda. She additionally threatened to permanently shut down a liaison office and nullify a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement aimed at mitigating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
No doubt, this stand-off is now a major roadblock in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to move the two heavily-armed rivals towards more stability and permanent peace. Since his victory in the 2017 presidential election, he has been a key organizer of three inter-Korean and two US-North Korea summits. Yet here he is now, caught in the middle of a political dilemma; on one hand, he faces increasing pressure from the North as well as his left-leaning supporters to repair broken economic ties with the DPRK, by considering some form of sanctions relief. On the other hand, doing so would almost certainly warrant disapproval from the United States and specifically the Trump administration, who has long rejected easing United Nations-imposed penalties against the Kim regime.
These latest developments bring up a number of key questions. Where do inter-Korean relations go from here? Can this relationship between the North and South ever be repaired so long as the Kim regime is in power?
Two years ago, there may have been a sliver of hope that relations were perhaps starting to thaw between the two Koreas, and that both countries would even start to cooperate on certain issues. However, things have not been the same since President Trump famously walked out of the 2019 US-DPRK Summit in Hanoi with Kim. Now, yet again, the US and North Korea find themselves in a diplomatic stalemate. If the US is solely fixated upon the complete denuclearization of North Korea and remains unwilling to consider any other alternatives in order to achieve dispute resolution, it is hard to imagine a potential scenario that may bring about appeasement to all sides.
Quite frankly, the chances of achieving long-term reconciliation might be slim so long as the North Korean regime continues to wield complete power over the DPRK. After all, this is a government that has repeatedly shown its capriciousness and volatility when it comes to its foreign policy with the US and South Korea. Promises made by the regime have been broken on several occasions, especially as it pertains to the country’s nuclear weapons development program.
Moreover, this isn’t the first time the North has played hard-to-get. Earlier this year, the Moon administration stated its intent to work with the North sans involvement of the US and the international community. Seoul reached out to Pyongyang to gauge the latter’s interest to cooperate on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic but was largely met with silence. As such, these latest developments between both countries could simply be a tactical move by North Korea to manufacture a crisis with the South and force specific concessions -- primarily in the form of sanctions relief -- to be made.
Despite the intense scrutiny that Moon Jae-in faces and will continue to face, it may be wise for him to not play into the hands of the North and meet all their demands. The South Korean government has already promised to take legal action against the groups of defectors for sending the leaflets, which will likely be met with outcry from other South Koreans over the possible infringements on freedom of expression. For the sake of national security and not nullifying its efforts to ameliorate relations with its neighbor, the government will probably have to ban future leaflet launches temporarily. But this is as far as it should go.
Besides, the fact that Kim Jong-un has yet to say anything himself suggests that there is still a window of opportunity for Moon and his cabinet. The clock is ticking, however, and the success of the administration’s response will depend on prudence and speed. With a gradually declining approval rating (after reaching a historic high of 71 percent last month) and a presidential election less than two years away, Moon now faces one of his toughest challenges since entering office.
A few weeks ago, there was much speculation about the chances of another inter-Korean summit taking place before the end of this year. Though likely a pipe dream at the moment, how the Moon administration navigates through this situation will determine whether or not it has any shot at resuming dialogue with North Korea in the immediate future, and restoring any amount of calm to the Korean peninsula.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is the current Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute in Singapore. He is a graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees).