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Summer Tensions May Heat Up Korean Peninsula

Interviewee: Choi Kang, Professor, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, South Korea
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
April 13, 2010

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Tensions between the two Koreas have been mounting since a South Korean warship sank in the West Sea on March 26, with speculation rife regarding North Korean involvement. In a separate incident, North Korea threatened to freeze South Korean assets at the Mount Kumgang tourism project. Last month, Pyongyang also denounced U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises as a preparation for an attack on the North.

Choi Kang, a North Korea expert at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, government-funded think tank, says it is likely North Korea will ratchet up pressure again this summer through a possible missile test or a well-calculated naval clash. Relations between the two Koreas have worsened since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's administration came to power two years ago and adopted a more hard-line policy toward the North. Choi says South Koreans' growing disinterest in inter-Korean relations has helped the administration to continue its tough stance toward the North. On regime stability, he says "North Korea is relatively stable," and the regime has tightened political controls since the debacle of its currency revaluation last November.

We are entering a season where North Korea usually ratchets up pressure: Last May it conducted a nuclear test and last summer it test-fired a series of missiles. Is South Korea concerned that there might be something similar this year, especially if the North Korean regime wants to assert its stability and power to the rest of the world?

To a certain degree. If the North Koreans don't get anything from the United States and South Korea, they might conduct a missile test. But a nuclear test? I don't know. Also they can violate the Northern Limit Line often, the maritime border in the West Sea. I hate June because every June we have a naval clash. They might undertake just a small clash, a very well-calculated clash of the Northern Limit Line. But this year, there could be one or two, and we cannot rule out the possibility of a third nuclear test by North Korea. They can present themselves [to the United States] as, "Oh, we can create tensions in the Korean peninsula if you do not engage with us in direct talks." That's a possible scenario.

How stable is the current North Korean regime?

"We are in a process of correcting our policy toward North Korea. For the past ten years, we always treated North Korea as a special guest. But, this administration is trying to normalize the inter-Korean relations."

North Korea is relatively stable. Last year, before former U.S. president Bill Clinton's visit to Pyongyang, we were saying, "Oh, the sky's falling," but not anymore. It seems to me that over the past couple of decades, North Korean regimes have found a way to survive. First, by allowing black markets or farmers' markets, they have invented a way to lessen economic hardship. Second, politically the North Korean peoples' concern about the future is greater than their dissatisfaction with the current leadership. So the fear of uncertainty is greater than fear of the collapse of the regime, and so they try to stick to the current system as best they can. In recent days, the North Korean leadership has tightened its political control. There is no big protest going on inside North Korea. According to the media, Kim Jong-Un is going to be the next leader.

You said the government has found ways to minimize economic hardship, but its currency revaluation policy in November 2009, which was later revoked, has reportedly resulted in greater economic problems for the people.

The move to revaluate currency was aimed at restoring the political control of the economy. But it turns out to be a failure. So, the North Korean minister of finance was shot to death. It was not his fault, but someone should be [held] responsible, so they admitted the failure of currency reform, the devaluation of the won. But it's not really an economic matter, actually, it's a political matter to enhance the control of the regime over the economy. People suffered from this, money has simply become paper, no value at all. There have been rumors of some people committing suicide. Anyhow [the regime] admitted the failure. [Now, they are allowing] people to do the same things they used to do, using a farmers' market or black market.

What is the state of inter-Korean relations?

We are in a process of correcting our policy toward North Korea. For the past ten years, we always treated North Korea as a special guest. But this administration is trying to normalize inter-Korean relations, asking the North to come and play as a normal-behaving state and [telling the North], "If you want to talk to us, come back to the Six Party Talks, come back to the ministerial-level talks." So it will take some time. We are not in a rush to make any kinds of special concessions. As in the United States, we too emphasize patience. The second part that actually allows this administration to stick to that principle is that people are not so concerned with inter-Korean relations. In 2000- 2001, people were really concerned over inter-Korean relations. Everything was optimistic. And nowadays, people have become less interested.

How does South Korea feel about direct talks between the United States and North Korea?

"We are not going to open up the Six Party Talks without any kind of hint of getting some tangible things out of the meeting."

From the beginning, this South Korean administration has emphasized [that] we welcome direct talks between the United States and North Korea as long as we are kept informed. We are drafting a comprehensive package deal for North Korea, but it cannot be delivered until North Korea comes back to the Six Party Talks. So still we are patient about the resumption of the talks. We are not going to open up the Six Party Talks without any kind of hint of getting some tangible things out of the meeting.

Have you seen any evolution in the Chinese view on North Korea?

Not so much. China always emphasizes stability, patience, and a synchronized approach. I don't know how much time the Chinese and the U.S. administrations spend on the North Korean issue [when they talk to each other]. So the odds are the Chinese will stick to their policy.

Recently, the South Korean minister of Knowledge Economy said the country seeks to develop "peaceful nuclear sovereignty." Does this mean South Korea will likely aim to renegotiate the 1974 U.S.-Korea peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement (PDF) to obtain U.S. consent on reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, when the nuclear agreement comes up for revision in 2014?

Whenever you talk to the scientists, they always want reprocessing and enrichment to complete the fuel cycle. But actually, that's not really a government position at all. We should have a resolution on those kinds of nuclear issues first of all, and also wish to come clean because there are [still suspicions over allegations of South Korea attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program in the past]. We have achieved high transparency. [But] the issue is whether it is good timing for us to raise the issue, because we are handling the North Korea nuclear issue. So we should be very cautious. That's the government position. People on both sides, conservatives and progressive, wish we were more independent in nuclear energy. The government is more cautious over this issue; they not only look at the scientific aspect but also at political, diplomatic, and security aspects. So we hope for the extension and revision of the agreement which will expire in 2014. M y understanding is we have no intention to complete the fuel cycle because we have to go back to the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (PDF), [wherein] we actually gave up our rights to reprocess and enrich.

This interview was part of a briefing given to the fellows of the 2010 East-West Center Korea-U.S. Journalists Exchange program. Jayshree Bajoria was one of the journalists on this trip co-sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation.

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