The South Korean injuries incurred on August 4 from land mines allegedly planted by North Korean soldiers at a South Korean guard post adjacent to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) has set off an inter-Korean rollercoaster ride punctuated by rising tensions: the first South Korean propaganda broadcasts toward the North in over a decade beginning August 10, an exchange of artillery fire across the DMZ on August 22, an ultimatum from the North demanding that South Korea stop the broadcasts by 5:00 p.m. on August 24 or face all-out war, and finally an agreement hours in advance of the North’s deadline to pursue over thirty hours (thus far) of marathon talks, led by senior military and civilian officials of the two governments at the Peace House on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom.
The lurch toward confrontation and rapid escalation of tensions on both sides has been unnerving in part because there is little room for backing down by either side without the risk of losing face, or worse, the upper hand, in inter-Korean interactions. But it is also positive that the self-isolated North finally demonstrated recognition of the seriousness of the situation by proposing diplomatic talks between Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Kim Yang-gon and South Korea’s National Security Advisor Kim Kwan-jin.
The South was correct to counter with a proposal that Kim Jong-un’s most senior military advisor Hwang Byung-seo join the talks along with Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo. This formulation ensured authoritative representation of both senior party and military officials while opening the possibility that the two sides can talk comprehensively on issues beyond the specifics of the military confrontation. These are the most extensive talks between high-level officials from the two Koreas—or between North Korea and any other country—since Kim Jong-un has taken power.
The initiation of talks eased the atmosphere of tension but did not lead to relaxed military postures on either side. In fact, the talks are held amidst heightened military readiness that accompanies the scheduled U.S.-ROK annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises. Signs of heightened military tensions include North Korea’s maneuvering of towed artillery closer to the DMZ, the launching of over fifty North Korean subs from their bases to unknown positions, and a mobilization of U.S. and ROK fighters in displays intended to provide leverage and show determination.
After the first twenty hours of negotiations, at a Monday morning meeting with senior officials President Park Geun-hye stated publicly that an apology and pledge to avoid recurrence of the land mine attack would be necessary for the South to cut off its propaganda loudspeakers, while the North denies responsibility for the land mine incident and insists that the dangerous barrage of South Korean news, weather, and K-pop songs be halted.
But more than these specific demands for apology and the end of propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ, the senior level talks must find a formula for restoring conditions of peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas that have gradually eroded in recent years. The fact that inter-Korean tensions have spread from the disputed and ambiguous maritime border to incursions and shooting across the DMZ itself illustrates the breakdown of the inter-Korean status quo.
The task for the negotiators, beyond seeking apologies and renewed military restraint, is to determine whether the two Koreas can live together without poking each other across the DMZ via either military or propaganda means. The marathon nature of the talks is illustrative of the difficulty of the task, and highlights the fact that the costs of failure are higher than either side should be willing to pay.
Some may question whether it is even possible for these two leaders, both of whom likely will face serious criticisms at home if they pursue compromise, to reach a new inter-Korean understanding. Unlike Park Geun-hye’s father and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, who made a first-ever inter-Korean declaration on July 4, 1972 following secret talks, these talks among senior proxies are public, and the result will immediately be assessed as either a “win” or a “loss” on both sides of the DMZ. These talks may take a while, but they are better than no talks at all, if only because they reveal a sobering recognition of the need to contain escalation before the costs of confrontation rise to unacceptable levels on both sides.