Hot Potatoes as Koreas Head to Talks

On June 12th, high-level governmental representatives from North and South Korea will meet for the first time in six years, coming together in Seoul for bilateral talks on pending issues such as the future of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, tourism at Mt. Geumgang and separated family reunions. This is the first high-level dialogue with North Korea for the administration of President Park Geun Hye, and because of the importance of the issues on the table, it offers a good opportunity to predict how inter-Korean relations might play out during President Park’s tenure.

The main thing making the future look brighter is the positive approach being adopted by both sides. When North Korea first suggested talks on June 6th, they entrusted the right to select time and location to Seoul, and the sides agreed to working-level contacts within three days.

However, it is thought likely that North Korea only proposed the talks under pressure from China. The consistent advice Choi Ryong Hae received when he visited Beijing at the end of May probably led North Korea to believe that it needs to improve relations with Seoul in a tangible manner to achieve other goals further down the road.

Moreover, North Korea has refused to permit Kim Yang Geon, who head the United Front Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party, to lead the talks despite pressure from Seoul, which sees Kim as the technical equal of South Korea’s Minister of Unification. Similarly, the agenda contains some thorny topics, and at the very least, time will be needed to reach a compromise position on a number of pressing issues.

Chun Hae Sung, who led the South Korean side at Sunday’s marathon working-level session, stated the same on Monday when he told a post-talks briefing, “Being realistic, it would be very difficult to discuss and resolve all the pending inter-Korean issues being brought up right now in just one meeting.”

There is speculation that out of all the agenda items North and South have agreed to discuss, it will however be easiest to engage with reuniting separated families and, in a similar vein, humanitarian assistance. There was even a round of separated family reunions during the era of former President Lee Myung Bak, when the relationship between the two countries reached a historic low.

Conversely, there is particular uncertainty as to how North Korea might respond to Seoul’s demand that the North guarantee no reoccurrence of either the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex or the shooting of a South Korean civilian at Mt. Geumgang. Even if North Korea does not raise the ephemeral issue of “South Korea offending our supreme dignity,” it will be crucial that North Korea promise to refrain from any repeat of such events in a believable manner.

Despite the evident difficulties that surround inter-Korean talks, exemplified by the ongoing wrangling over who will take part, Professor Im Eul Chul of Gyeongnam University said that there is still hope. “Both North and South are showing that they are not just having talks for the sake of having talks. As they held the working-level contact, North and the South could asses each other’s thoughts and intentions relatively accurately,” he said. “They will probably both have plans in mind before the dialogue takes place.”

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