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Special> Focus on Korean Peninsula> Beijing Review Exclusive> Opinion
UPDATED: February 13, 2009 NO. 7 FEB. 19, 2009
Digging in
The situation on the Korean Peninsula remains tense for now, but reconciliation is possible down the road

Entering 2009, North Korea has been playing hardball with South Korea. On January 17, a spokesman for the Chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People's Army declared the country would adopt an "all-out confrontational posture" toward South Korea. On January 30, the North Korean Government announced it would sever all political and military ties with South Korea, and cancel all cooperation, non-aggression and reconciliation agreements signed since the early 1990s.


MILITARY CONSULTATION: North Korean top military delegate Park Lim Soo (left) shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Lee Sang Cheol (right) during their meeting on October 2, 2008, at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two sides (XINHUA/AFP)

In fact, the situation on the peninsula is not as tense as it looks. North Korea acted this way based on two considerations. On one hand, it generally had the situation under its control, reversing the positions of host and guest. On the other hand, it never stopped bargaining with the United States. Pyongyang has maintained open channels of dialogue with Washington, while closing off contact with Seoul, so as to fight for diplomatic dominance. In the short term, tensions on the Peninsula may not ease up for awhile.

Super-hard against hard

North Korea has been dissatisfied with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's attitudes since he entered office last February, and the relations between North Korea and South Korea have been deteriorating for some time.

The Lee administration planned to make North Korea bend its will through high-pressure moves, and then gain the upper hand in the nuclear issue. But this plan was disrupted by Pyongyang's super-hard reaction, and Seoul found itself in a dilemma. Recent tension on the Korean Peninsula actually reinforces Pyongyang's super-hard against hard policy, which in recent years has aimed to soften Seoul's attitude.

On February 25, 2008, Lee officially proposed his basic North Korea policy based on pragmatism. He said that the South Korean Government would help North Korea reach the goal of realizing per-capita gross domestic product of $3,000 within 10 years, but only if North Korea cooperated with nuclear non-proliferation efforts and opened itself up. Pyongyang strongly objected to this proposal, criticizing Seoul for intervening in its internal affairs and saying the policy represented a huge setback for the bilateral relations. North Korea also said Seoul's behavior would badly influence not only the situation on the peninsula but also that in the neighboring area. After several rounds of verbal battle, their bilateral relations rapidly turned cold.

The economic field was the first to experience a diplomatic winter. Soon after Lee assumed the presidency, his government changed the policy of offering free aid to North Korea, a policy that had lasted the previous two administrations. South Korea decreed that all aid to North Korea should be reciprocal and non-gratuitous, and ended a 10-year free seed and fertilizer program. These hardline policies enraged North Korea and eventually elicited a series of harder reactions. In December 2008, North Korea introduced several severe restrictions, including expelling South Korean personnel from Kaesong Industrial Park and the Mount Kumgang scenic spot, as well as prohibiting all land transit between the two sides. As Kaesong Industrial Park and Mount Kumgang were two major symbols of bilateral cooperation, these measures marked the breakdown of economic cooperation between North Korea and South Korea.

The military situation became tense as well. Kim Tae Young, Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested taking preemptive action against North Korea during his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on March 26, 2008. North Korea strongly condemned his words, arguing that they equated to a public declaration of war. It said that if the South Korean Government did not apologize for Kim's comments, it would cut off all dialogue and connections between the two sides. Pyongyang also test-fired three short-range missiles to express its dissatisfaction.

Because of these constant diplomatic frustrations, Lee had no choice but to modify his policy, and implemented a comparatively active and progressive policy of "coexistence and co-prosperity." But North Korea did not buy it, saying the policy had changed in form but not in content. The new policy did not have a sufficient impact.

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