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Watching for signs: inter-Korean relations in 2019

Image credit: Ben Kucinski (Creative Commons: Flickr)

Inter-Korean relations remain in the spotlight for 2019, but many are wondering whether the spring-like thaw here to stay. Around this time last year, speculation surrounding the potential of PyeongChang ‘peace’ Olympics to catalyse inter-Korean rapprochement dominated domestic and international headlines. Now, even in light of the collapse of the second Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam, we appear to have come a long way from the tentative optimism of last year. Yet as always, Korea-watchers around the world are carefully looking for signs of whether the 2018 ‘thaw’ can be expected to last.

In this context, the Kim Jong-un’s new year address has traditionally served as an important ‘signal’ of what we may expect in the next round of denuclearisation talks, at both inter-Korean and DPRK-US levels. Interestingly, during the 30-minute speech recording of the 2019 iteration, the word ‘nuclear’ was mentioned only twice while ‘peace’ and ‘economy’ appeared 25 and 38 times, respectively. Echoing this trend of shifting the focus to ‘normal’ state concerns and moving away from the revolutionary, security-centric rhetoric of previous New Year addresses, the setting of the recording was changed from the usual podium in the Worker’s Party Conference Room to the ‘intimate’ office sofa.

On the one hand, this can be seen as a positive trajectory towards normalising the situation on the Korean Peninsula, as it is well known that North Korea seeks to establish international credibility and legitimacy, particularly vis-à-vis bilateral relations with the United States. If North Korea can succeed in improving its image, it would be easier to obtain its sought-after security guarantees, thus facilitating a breakthrough in the denuclearisation process.

However, simplicity has never been the trademark of North Korean issues. The commentary on Kim’s address is in itself quite telling. While some analysts were quick to hone in on the warning tone of Kim’s comment regarding the possibility of “finding a new way” if the current approach proved ineffective, most tended to focus on the positive shift to emphasising economic development and toning down of confrontational rhetoric.

From the South Korean side, the Korean Institute for National Unification emphasised the importance given to presentation in this speech, where “aware of the international spotlight drawn to its annual address, the North probably went to great lengths to create the image of a gentle, stable and benevolent leader.” The same analysts also pointed out that the narrative of Kim’s speech moved away from themes of tension, struggle and mobilisation, towards emphasising stability, inclusion and reform.

All of these points can be interpreted as signalling a shift towards ‘normal’ economic policy, which was part of the Byungjin line of promoting both economic and nuclear development that was announced in 2013. But more tellingly, they signal South Korea’s commitment to continuing to give the peace-building process a chance, even amidst allegations of North Korean continuing nuclear activities.

Of course, it is not incidental that the president who is supporting these rapprochement efforts comes from a strong liberal tradition, having served as a human rights lawyers and chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, who took on from Kim Dae-jung, the iconic South Korean leader credited for initiating the ‘Sunshine’ policy and hosting the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

Yet whilst the ideological commitment to maintaining a peaceful dialogue with North Korea remains strong, there are a number of factors that constrain South Korean policy options. Internationally, the United States wants a stronger commitment from its ally, with recent tensions over the costs of military spending and warnings against diverging from the US strategy by moving too quickly towards economic cooperation.

Domestically, criticism has been coming from multiple fronts. Although President Moon started his term with a record approval rating, this has fallen dramatically since November 2018, dipping below 50 per cent last December. The South Korean economy is a particular point of debate but concern over progress on the North Korean issue has not escaped public scrutiny.

The stakes are high for both leaders. For Moon Jae-in, this 5-year term is his only chance to secure permanent gains in both the North Korean issue and South Korean domestic economy. On the other side of the 38th parallel, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated a strong desire to reinvigorate the domestic economy, using the nuclear card as a means to secure regime survival and focus on internal growth.

So notwithstanding certain constraints, economic cooperation remains as an important bridge towards resolving regional tension. As President Moon expressed in his New Year address, economic initiatives, such as the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and tourism in Geumgangsan Mountain, are beneficial to both South and North Korea, and “Peace can drive economic growth. The desire to prosper lies in the people of both South and North Korea”.

Time will tell whether this win-win economic cooperation can prove to stand the test of power politics and help institutionalise peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Kate Kalinova is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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