As this piece was being written, delegations from Pyongyang and Seoul were meeting at Panmunjon following an unexpected offer tabled by North Korea on Saturday. It is too soon to know whether anything concrete will come out of the talks. But the fact that they were held at all is clearly one of the most significant diplomatic developments in North-South relations during the Park presidency, and arguably since the Roh Moo Hyun years.
The talks have been billed as “high-level,” but this is somewhat of a misnomer. The Southern delegation was headed by Kim Kyou-hyun, head of the relatively new secretariat of the ROK National Security Council. He is not to be confused with the chief presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, who might be seen as the equivalent of the US National Security Advisor; Kim is roughly at a vice-ministerial rank.
The North Korean delegation was headed by Won Dong-yon, the deputy director (perhaps senior or first vice director) of the United Front Department (UFD), the Workers’ Party body tasked with North-South relations. Michael Madden, at the indispensible North Korea Leadership Watch, provided us background on Won. He has been around since the late-1980s, survived purges in at the UDF in 2007-8, and was part of the team that sought to negotiate a North-South summit with Lee Myung Bak in 2009; as is always the case with North Korean negotiators, he is not a newcomer to the issues.
Several features of the arrangements indicate they are more significant than the personnel alone would suggest. First, beyond the fact that the Ministry of Unification referred to the talks as “high level,” Kim Kyou-hyun’s position in the Blue House indicates close presidential attention. A Chinese report suggests the North wanted leadership from the Blue House. Second, the delegation includes representatives of both the Ministry of Unification and Ministry of National Defense, which is unusual for talks at this level. Third, there was apparently no set agenda. The MOU statement referred to discussions of the on-again, off-again family reunions, currently scheduled for later in the month. But the opportunity to probe on other issues means that real information might be gained about North Korean intentions; it’s certainly better than the parlor game of trying to guess what Pyongyang’s recent proposal–analyzed here—might portend.
The context of the North Korean offer suggests a conciliatory posture. The talks came in the wake of a North Korean proposal that included a request for the cancellation of military exercises with the US. As if to recognize that this was not going to happen, the North Korean proposal also asked the US to limit the nature of the forces deployed; specifically, Pyongyang wanted nothing that looked “nuclear” in any way, including bombers or a carrier task force. When the US decided that limitations on its Continuous Bomber Presence program in Asia were too much to concede, Pyongyang threatened to cancel the family reunions. However, they ultimately retaliated against the US rather than the South by canceling a visit by Ambassador Bob King which, it was hoped, would make progress on the Kenneth Bae issue. Even that disappointment was dampened by the low-key visit of long-standing Korea hand Don Gregg to Pyongyang, a visit that the KCNA noted in a one-line story. The current hope is that Gregg might make progress on the release of Bae.
The talks raise two broader questions. The first is where North-South relations might go next. One possibility is a regularization of the family reunions. On the one hand, this would be relatively costless for the North; on the other hand the North Koreans have managed to frame the reunions as a concession, and they were not explicitly linked to any quid-pro-quo from the South. North Korea is likely to raise the reopening of the Mt. Kumgang tourist complex, an important source of foreign exchange which was lost following the killing of a South Korean tourist in 2007 (our posts on the difficult history of this issue can be found here). But if South Korea permits a reopening of the complex, lifts sanctions, or expands aid and investment, will it be able to raise the underlying security issues, including the nuclear question? The Park administration has been cautious in setting expectations on the nuclear issue, but ultimately there needs to be a security payoff.
The talks will have a sharper edge if North Korea continues to focus on cancellation of the upcoming exercises. If pushed hard—or raised as a condition for future progress—the initiative will fade.
The second question is whether a thaw in North-South relations might be a prelude to more serious discussions of restarting the Six Party Talks. We have seen few deviations from strategic patience on the US side. But a serious improvement in North-South relations could be either a signal of North Korean intent or of invisible Chinese pressure. These issues will no doubt be discussed by Secretary Kerry in both Seoul and Beijing next week.