Rugby Is No Fun with Pyongyang

Inter-Korean relations have been heading towards along a highly unpredictable trajectory in the last twelve months, as a result of North Korea’s so-called “rugby ball” stance, a strategy that makes it hard for Seoul to comprehend the intent behind Pyongyang’s policy choices.

In the first half of this year, North Korea reasserted its 20-year old brinkmanship strategy by building up tensions on the Korean Peninsula and, within that, closing down the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). In the second half of the year to date, they have adopted a conciliatory stance by restarting the KIC and conceding to a round of separated family reunions; subsequently, however, they called off the reunion meetings and, for a number of days, attacked South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

Most recently, North Korea has adopted a stance of studied silence on the internationalization of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, withdrawing from an investment expo that was to have been held by the two Koreas together. In other words, North Korea is in effect boycotting the core elements of their agreement on the future of the KIC, just one month after it was adopted.

At the time of the negotiations, drawn out over two months during the summer, experts pointed out the risk of North Korea reneging on its promises depending on internal and external political circumstances. The situation has now come to pass.

Following the election of Park Geun Hye, but particularly when South Korea did not buckle over the KIC shutdown, North Korea was generally thought to have conceded the upper ground in inter-Korean relations, a position Pyongyang found untenable. As a result, North Korea turned to the “rugby ball” approach, aiming to unsettle South Korean politics and society. While practical benefits accrue to North Korea when inter-Korean relations improve, the North places far greater weight on keeping South Korea on the back foot.

“For as long as there are no elements to make it worth reversing the current situation, the present political stalemate is likely to persist. To the extent that North Korea puts its highest dignity [the leader] first, they will not easily exercise flexibility,” Police Science Institute researcher Yoo Dong Yeol predicted in conversation with Daily NK.

“North Korea planned to tame the newly elected Park Geun Hye government at the outset, but they failed and have since abandoned the idea. Subsequently, they resorted to a variety of tactics to exert pressure on South Korea so as to maintain a tense and hostile relationship, which is vital for guaranteeing regime stability and superiority over the South on the Korean Peninsula,” Yoo added.

Sejong Institute chair Song Dae Seong added, “The outlook for inter-Korean relations will remain grim for now, as North Korea will focus on sympathetic groups for the rest of this year. Therefore, South Korea should abandon our anxiety about improving inter-Korean relations, and add weight to efforts to speed up the denuclearization of North Korea instead.”