Seoul wants to reduce border tensions and guarantees on reunions of families separated since the Korean War, whereas Pyongyang seeks resumption of tours to Kumgang. Julain Ryall reports from Tokyo.
Across the highly polished table in a meeting room in Kaesong, the economic enclave in North Korea that has been the symbol of efforts to build bridges between Pyongyang and Seoul since 2002, delegations from the two nations shook hands on Friday, December 11.
In the glare of media spotlights, Hwang Boo-gi, the South Korean vice unification minister, reached out to Jon Jung-su, vice director of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea. After the handshakes and the poses for the cameras, the reporters were ushered out and the two sides opened the first day of discussions that were agreed upon in the summer to try to ease tensions on the peninsula.
Those tensions had been stoked by an exchange of artillery fire and both sides bringing their respective military forces up to full readiness over the space of a week in late August. Pulling back from the brink, Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to hold high-level discussions to try to iron out some of their differences and avoid another similar showdown.
Making the right noises
Both sides are making all the right noises about their high hopes for meaningful progress in the bilateral relationship, but analysts say that is likely to remain elusive.
“It would be fair to say that we have been down this road before,” Professor Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, told DW. “And while the government in Seoul might be expressing its hopes for a positive outcome, I really feel that any trust it may have had previously has been undone by the North’s actions.”
“Expectations are, sensibly, low,” he added.
The agenda for the discussions is being kept secret, although analysts expect both sides to come to the table with proposals that would be relatively easy to achieve. Should that prove to be the case, and should both sides indicate they are keen to continue, then there is a possibility that discussions could move on to more substantive issues.
Seoul is expected to ask North Korea to permit relatives who have been separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953 to see each other on a regular basis. Around 100 families were able to meet up for a week in late October, but thousands more are on waiting lists, and most are very elderly and frail.
The North is likely to have broached the question of the Mount Kumgang mountain resort, which was opened to South Korean tourists in 1998. The joint project came to a screeching halt in July 2008, when a 53-year-old South Korean woman was shot and killed by North Korean guards while she was walking on a nearby beach.
The resort was an important source of hard currency for the regime, and Pyongyang is keen to restart tours. Seoul, however, is seeking guarantees over the security of its citizens.
“The very fact that they are having these talks is an improvement and I believe it is symbolic that the venue is Kaesong,” said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. “This says to me that the North is placing value on economic rapprochement with the South and that they want to open up that economic relationship.”
Whether more South Korean companies are willing to take up the option of a working relationship at Kaesong or elsewhere remains to be seen, however, as work at the joint economic zone came to a halt in May 2013 as tensions rose after North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test.
Kaesong was earning the North Korean government an estimated $100 million a year and it is clear why Kim Jong-un’s regime is keen for it to continue to operate and for more firms to set up in the North. South Korean companies are likely to weigh the low labor costs against the high possibility of political volatility.
Eyes wide open
“The South Korean government is going in there with its eyes wide open and looking to get whatever it can, including promises from the North that there will be no more overt acts of provocation along the border,” said Okumura.
“But it will be very aware that we have been in this situation on numerous occasions in the past,” he added. “And while everyone can learn from history, we are still condemned to repeat it.”
And Kingston points out that while Seoul will be keen to use talks to build a relationship with the North, “nobody thinks this is going to solve all their problems.”
“If you are facing North Korea, then you want to have talks because better relations are clearly a plus, but Seoul will have limited expectations,” he added. “They know that the North can’t be trusted because they have tried that in the past and the North has responded by sinking Seoul’s ships and bombarding its islands and border positions.
“They know what they’re dealing with.”