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Family reunions belie future of the Korean peninsula

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In Brief

The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held their first family reunions in three years on 20 February 2014. But the event does not hail the beginning of a grand renewal in relations — the world has been here before and the important underlying factors that have undermined enhanced relations before, as highlighted by the recent exchange of fire along the western maritime border, remain unchanged.


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The dream of Korean unity is a powerful one on both sides of the 38th Parallel. No act is symbolically more important than that of ‘completing’ families separated by the ‘unnatural’ division of both people and land. Yet the regular use of family reunions is also a matter of political expediency. For leaders on both sides of the Korean peninsula, family reunions are appealing because as acts of unconditional goodwill they are cheap, politically low-risk, and capable of serving as launch pads for more comprehensive bilateral discussions.

But the relative ease of organising family reunions perhaps also explains why resultant discussions soon run into difficulties.

In stark contrast to the low-risk and cost of family reunions, discussion of the complex issues that affect ROK–DPRK relations is a high-stakes game. For this reason, the most common cause for collapse in relations between both countries is their unwillingness to compromise on sticking points.

For instance, the ever-growing disparity between the DPRK and ROK means that the North is ever more demanding of the South when it comes to substantial aid as a condition for ongoing talks. In turn, South Korea, motivated by the North’s history of unpredictability, is reluctant to provide aid on that basis alone, resulting in a deal-breaker: the ROK demands monitoring to ensure the transparency of aid distribution but the DPRK vehemently resists.

Even if the ROK and DPRK do manage to reach a series of agreements that pave the way for improved relations, their sustainability would depend, in part, on agreement from the US and China. The US plays perhaps the most important direct and indirect role in the dispute. One of the key foreign policy objectives of North Korea since the end of the Cold War has been to establish normalised relations with the US. However, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, its willingness to do so now appears to depend on obtaining recognition from the US as a nuclear power — something which the Obama administration is understandably reluctant to give. It is therefore up to the ROK to undertake the difficult task of crafting an engagement strategy that excludes the aforementioned DPRK demand for US recognition — a situation that will not sit well with the latter. China’s interests in the peninsula are a close second behind those of the US.

Despite considerable debate over the precise extent of its actual influence on the DPRK, it is safe to say that Beijing is better placed than any other country to exert sway over the DPRK as its largest aid donor, trading partner and sole military ally.

Given the proximity of the Korean peninsula to the Chinese border, Beijing is arguably much more sensitive than the US to any changes to the status quo. Fortunately, there is precedent to indicate that China may be open to sudden changes. In 1992, Beijing went against a standing agreement with North Korea when it recognised South Korea and normalised relations. But this case also indicates that there are key criteria that must be met before China would agree to any dramatic improvements in inter-Korean relations that would shift the regional status quo.

As highlighted in Don Oberdorfer’s ‘The Two Koreas’, the scale of the disparity in economic promise between the ROK and the DPRK was a decisive factor in China’s acceptance of a new status quo. But while this case showed the possibility that Beijing will accept change in the face of overwhelming circumstances that make it difficult to do otherwise, the case also showed that even then, China will still exercise maximum flexibility and caution. Despite China’s economic imperative for recognising the ROK, delays were frequent. This was particularly the case whenever the Chinese felt the ROKs desired pace could potential compromise its own efforts to mitigate the damage the undertaking would have on its relations with the DPRK and, by extension, the integrity of its influence there.

Family reunions have always been a helpful starting point when it comes to improving inter-Korean relations. However, reunions and the resulting inter-Korean talks belie a series of complex issues that affect both the regional and international order. If they are to lead to something bigger, all parties should pause for a moment and think about how prepared they are for the long, hard road ahead.

Andrew Yong Chang Kwon is a 2014 Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Visiting Scholar in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).The views expressed are his own.

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