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An Overview of Inter-Korean Relations

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Background Korea claims a history that goes back thousands of years, despite invasions, at one time or another, by all of its neighbors. Although there have been several periods of competing kingdoms co-existing on the Peninsula over the course of Korea’s long history, Korea’s last dynasty ruled over a unified and highly ethnically homogeneous state for over 500 years, until Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. There have historically been minor regional variations in dialect between different parts of Korea, but the modern division of the country at the 38th Parallel by the United States and Soviet Union was based entirely on geopolitical considerations, and not on pre-existing geographic or cultural divisions within Korea.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the increasing influence of Western powers in Asia, the decline of imperial China, and the rise of Japan had a deeply destabilizing effect on Korea’s ruling Joseon Dynasty. Competition between China and Japan for influence in Korea led to the outbreak of the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, with the Japanese victory ending China’s traditional role in the Peninsula. In the aftermath of the conflict, Japan came into conflict with Russia over influence in Korea and Manchuria. After the breakdown of diplomatic efforts to contain this competition, including a proposal setting the 38th parallel as a dividing line for their spheres of influence in Korea, war between Japan and Russia broke out in 1904. In July 1905 Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro and US Secretary of War William Taft had a meeting, captured in the "Taft-Katsura Memorandum," in which Japan tacitly accepted the U.S. sphere of influence in the Philippines and the United States tacitly accepted Japan's interest in Korea. The Treaty of Portsmouth concluded the war that September and recognized Japanese predominance in Korea. Japan declared Korea as a protectorate in 1905, and formally annexed the Peninsula five years later. Japan remained in Korea as an occupying force until its surrender to the Allied forces on August 15, 1945.

The Division of the Peninsula and the Korean War At the close of World War II, the USSR and the U.S. agreed to a temporary division of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel until a provisional government could be established and independence restored. However, the emergent Cold War ended plans for placing a unified Korea under international trusteeship, and the division of the Peninsula hardened: the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south was declared in 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north followed a month later. Both states claimed to represent the whole Peninsula, and declared unification as an urgent objective.

In June 1950, war between the two Koreas broke out, with the DPRK quickly overrunning and occupying much of the southern half of the Peninsula. After the outbreak of war, the United Nations adopted a series of resolutions, ultimately authorizing the use of force to assist the ROK. By October, the ROK, U.S., and 15 other UN nations had pushed North Korean forces nearly to the Chinese border, precipitating the intervention of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. UN forces were pushed back down the Peninsula before a stalemate developed roughly along the 38th Parallel, with Seoul changing hands two more times. Peace negotiations began in 1951, but dragged on as fighting continued for two years while the principles negotiated issues including the inter-Korean border and prisoner exchanges.

On July 27, 1953, the UN Command (represented by the U.S.), the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army signed an armistice, establishing a ceasefire and demilitarized zone across the Peninsula but leaving many issues, such as a maritime border, unresolved. (In the absence of such a border, the UN Command unilaterally drew a military control line in the West Sea, which would become the Northern Limit Line – clashes over this line would later become a major issue in inter-Korean relations.)[i]

Inter-Korean Relations During and After the Cold War The brutality of the Korean War – over a million lives were lost and much of the Peninsula was reduced to rubble – intensified the enmity between the two halves of the peninsula. In the years after the war, the two Koreas competed for international recognition abroad, while sharply constraining civil liberties at home. For the next several decades, government-to-government or person-to-person contact between the two Koreas was almost nonexistent. In the late 1960s, a sharp rise in clashes along the DMZ, along with the attempted assassination of ROK President Park Chung-hee, increased inter-Korean tensions to their highest point since the war.[ii]

As the security architecture of East Asia fundamentally changed with the onset of U.S.-China rapprochement in the early 1970s, however, the governments of both Koreas found it in their interests to begin a dialogue with one another. Inter-Korean talks, initially held under the auspices of the Red Cross, led to the first inter-Korean Joint Statement on reunification, issued on July 4, 1972. Yet this détente on the Peninsula was short-lived, and relations remained tense through the remainder of the Cold War, reaching peaks with the attempted assassination of ROK President Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon in 1983 and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. Although there were some additional periods of cautious inter-Korean engagement – for example, a small number of divided South and North Korean family members were allowed to briefly reunite in Seoul and Pyongyang in 1985 – these periods of dialogue did not last long.[iii]

Significant inter-Korean dialogue resumed under South Korea’s first democratically elected president, Roh Tae-Woo (in office 1988-1993), whose policy of Nordpolitik led to South Korea’s establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea’s traditional allies, the Soviet Union and China. As part of this policy, the Roh administration also reached out diplomatically to North Korea, allowing direct inter-Korean trade for the first time in 1989 and initiating inter-Korean sports exchanges.[iv] In December 1991, the two Koreas signed a “Basic Agreement” on nonaggression and reconciliation, and a joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula shortly thereafter.

Inter-Korean relations were tumultuous under Roh’s successor, Kim Young Sam. Kim pledged a hardline approach to North Korea, suspending economic exchanges after the DPRK withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993, but changing course and planning a summit meeting with Kim Il Sung in July 1994. However, the North Korean leader died a few weeks before it was to take place, and South Korea chose not to send any condolences, resulting in North Korea hardening its stance. North-South relations would continue on an up-and-down track over the next several years, over issues including food aid, North Korean submarine incursions, and regional diplomacy.[v]

Warming Relations: The Sunshine Policy After Kim Dae Jung, a South Korean democracy activist, became President of South Korea in 1998, he instituted the "Sunshine Policy" to promote reconciliation with the DPRK. As part of this policy, the ROK government began allowing South Korean NGOs, businesses, and private citizens to have contact across the DMZ, and ramped up bilateral food and fertilizer aid to the North as it was recovering from a devastating famine. In 1998, an arm of South Korea’s Hyundai Group began running tours of Mt. Geumgang in North Korea.[vi] In June 2000, Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang for the first presidential summit since the countries were established, leading to a dramatic shift in South Korean attitudes toward the North as well as in policy.[vii] The two sides agreed to begin family reunification meetings, and also decided to establish the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) near the DMZ.[viii] The Sunshine Policy was premised on separating humanitarian and economic cooperation from political issues, and engagement went forward even as the two Koreas engaged in naval clashes near the NLL in 1999 and 2002.

Roh Moo Hyun, who succeeded Kim Dae Jung as President of the ROK in 2003, continued and intensified reconciliation efforts with North Korea under the “Policy for Peace and Prosperity.” This policy saw increased bilateral aid and humanitarian assistance from South to North as well as substantial government-sponsored investment in the KIC. However, the Roh administration’s approach to North Korea was complicated by the deepening nuclear crisis on the Peninsula. Following the DPRK’s first nuclear test in October 2006, South Korea reduced its aid and temporarily suspended fertilizer and food shipments, although investment in the KIC continued. With the Six Party Talks process showing some progress the next year, Roh met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang for a second inter-Korean Summit in October 2007, during the waning months of Roh’s presidency. The Summit outlined multiple new inter-Korean economic development projects, such as creation of a West Sea Economic Center in the North Korean port city of Haeju; however, the next administration did not implement the ambitious projects outlined in the Summit agreement.

Lee Myung Bak and a New Era of Inter-Korean Relations The inauguration of President Lee Myung Bak on February 25, 2008 heralded a major change in inter-Korean relations. Before taking office, Lee indicated that he would take a “pragmatic” approach towards North Korea,[ix] and his "Initiative for Denuclearization and Opening up North Korea" promised a US$3,000 per capita income for North Korea – if the DPRK abandoned its nuclear program. This initiative demonstrated a prioritization of denuclearization over inter-Korean issues, a change of pace from previous administrations. Lee also promised to make addressing human rights issues in North Korea a more prominent part of ROK policy.

The Lee administration dramatically curtailed aid to the North, but continued inter-Korean cooperation at Kaesong and Mt. Geumgang. However, following the shooting of a South Korean tourist who had walked into a restricted zone of Mt. Geumgang in July 2008, Lee ordered a suspension of tourism at the resort until a joint investigation could be conducted; the DPRK refused to allow such an investigation. Inter-Korean relations continued to deteriorate in early 2009, with North Korea declaring all past inter-Korean agreements “nullified”[x] and the Lee administration condemning nuclear and missile tests by the North. A new opening in inter-Korean relations arrived in August 2009, as North Korea sent a high-level delegation to Kim Dae Jung’s funeral, which subsequently met with President Lee. North Korea also released a South Korean worker who had been detained at Kaesong, and a family reunion meeting took place for the first time since 2007. However, this would prove to be another short-lived détente.

In November 2009, ships from the North and South Korean navies engaged in a skirmish along the Northern Limit Line, the first such clash in seven years. The following March, a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, sank after an explosion, killing 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation of the incident reported that “the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.”[xi] North Korea refuted the report,[xii] and some South Korean and U.S. scholars and experts also questioned the investigative process.[xiii] China did not assign culpability to the sinking, a stance echoed in the UN Security Council Presidential Statement issued in response.[xiv] President Lee demanded an apology for the attack, and on May 24, 2010 announced several new unilateral sanctions: the ROK prohibited North Korean ships from using shipping lanes that crossed ROK territory, and suspended all inter-Korean trade and exchanges outside of Kaesong.[xv] In November of that year, as the ROK conducted live-fire military exercises near the NLL, the DPRK military fired around 170 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island, resulting in the deaths of two South Korean Marines and two civilians.

Inter-Korean relations for the remainder of Lee’s Presidency remained tense. South Korea demanded an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents before resuming dialogue, which North Korea refused to give. The two sides, apparently at the South’s request, held secret talks in April 2011 in Beijing, but this attempt at rapprochement was unsuccessful; eventually the DPRK publicly revealed the existence of the talks and named the ROK officials involved.[xvi] Following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, the ROK issued a statement “convey[ing] sympathy to the North Korean people,” but did not send an official delegation to Pyongyang.[xvii] After Lee condemned North Korea’s April 2012 satellite launch, North Korea began an intense personal campaign against him, signaling the end of any interest in dialogue for the remainder of Lee’s term.[xviii] The DPRK attempted another satellite launch in December 2012, shortly before the election for Lee’s successor as President, and conducted a third nuclear test a week before the inauguration of Park Geun Hye.

Park Geun Hye and Trustpolitik Park Geun Hye was elected President of South Korea on December 19, 2012, promising to strengthen the economy, modify the social safety net and improve relations with North Korea.[xix] Park campaigned on taking a more pragmatic approach to North Korea, premised on building trust through renewed dialogue while responding forcefully to any new provocations. She also pledged to build a multilateral institution for regional cooperation, which would include North Korea. In a Foreign Affairs essay, Park Geun Hye outlined her vision of trustpolitik, arguing:

North Korea must keep its agreements made with South Korea and the international community to establish a minimum level of trust, and second, there must be assured consequences for actions that breach the peace. To ensure stability, trustpolitik should be applied consistently from issue to issue based on verifiable actions, and steps should not be taken for mere political expediency.[xx]

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula hit a peak shortly after Park’s inauguration, with North Korean denouncing the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2094 in response to its nuclear test. The onset of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises in March 2013 led to a further deterioration of inter-Korean relations. Over the course of a few weeks, North Korea declared the Armistice Agreement “completely nullified,” severed the last inter-Korean military hotline, and declared a “state of war” with South Korea, as nuclear-capable U.S. bombers flew over South Korea in a show of force. North Korea also withdrew its 53,000 workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, leading South Korea to withdraw its personnel from the KIC in turn.[xxi]

Over the next few months, however, both Koreas gradually returned to dialogue, seeking to reopen Kaesong as well as address other issues such as family reunions and allowing tourists to visit Mt. Geumgang resort. Initial meetings foundered over protocol issues and differences in guaranteeing Kaesong’s continued operations during future crises, but the two sides reached a breakthrough in August, agreeing to a number of measures aimed at preventing disruption of the complex during future crises and to take steps to develop it further. These included a guarantee not to restrict employee access or withdraw workers unilaterally; the resumption of communications links and the creation of a joint North-South committee for overseeing Kaesong; and a pledge to make a mutual effort to attract investment in Kaesong from abroad.[xxii]

In addition, both Koreas agreed on resuming family reunions at Mt. Geumgang, and began discussing re-starting tourism there. However, the reunions were cancelled shortly before they were to take place, and further talks surrounding Mt. Geumgang were postponed.[xxiii] Initial working-level inter-Korean talks on some of the issues addressed by the Kaesong agreement were also slow in making progress. [xxiv]

Inter-Korean Trade
Trade and Aid volumes, 1989-2013

Source: ROK Ministry of Unification. 

[i] Terence Roehrig, “The Northern Limit Line: The Disputed Maritime Boundary Between the Two Koreas,” NCNK Issue Brief, September 29, 2011.

[ii] Mitchell Lerner, “‘Mostly Propaganda in Nature:’ Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War,” North Korea International Documentation Project, Working Paper #3 (December 2010).

[iii] James A. Foley, “‘Sunshine’ or Showers for Korea’s Divided Families?” World Affairs, Vol. 165, No. 4 (Spring 2003), pp. 179-184.

[iv] Victor D. Cha, “Korean Unification: The Zero-Sum Past and the Precarious Future,” Asian Perspective, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter 1997), 66-67; Kim Ji-hyung, “The Development of the Discussions on Unification during the Early Post-Cold War Era: Competition and Coexistence between the Government and Nongovernment Sector,” International Journal of Korean History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (February 2012).

[v] Yongho Kim, “Inconsistency or Flexibility? The Kim Young Sam Government’s North Korea Policy and Its Domestic Variants,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, Vol. 8 (1999), pp. 225-245.

[vi] “Mount Kumgang and Inter-Korean Relations,” NCNK Issue Brief, November 10, 2009.

[vii] Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder, “Confidence and Confusion: National Identity and Security Alliances in Northeast Asia,” Issues & Insights, Vol. 8, No. 16 (September 2008), 22-24.

[viii] Construction at Kaesong began after Kim Dae-Jung left office, in 2003.

[ix] Korean Cultural Center. “President-elect Lee Myung-bak Seeks Pro-Business Policies, Pragmatic Diplomacy.” Korea Policy Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 2008), 6.

[x] “DPRK to Scrap All Points Agreed with S. Korea over Political and Military Issues,” KCNA, January 30, 2009.

[xi] The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group, “Investigation Result on the Sinking of ROKS "Cheonan,"” May 20, 2010.

[xii] “National Defence Commission Issues Statement on KCNA,” KCNA, May 20, 2010.

[xiii] “Most S. Koreans Skeptical About Cheonan Findings, Survey Shows” Chosun Ilbo, September 8, 2010.; J.J. Suh and Seunghun Lee, “Rush to Judgment: Inconsistencies in South Korea’s Cheonan Report,” Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2010),; So Gu Kim and Yefim Gitterman, “Underwater Explosion (UWE) Analysis of the ROKS Cheonan Incident,” Pure and Applied Geophysics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (April 2012), 547-560.

[xiv] Chinese Foreign Ministry, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's Statement on UN Security Council's Presidential Statement on the Cheonan Incident” July 9, 2010.

[xv] Council on Foreign Relations, “South Korean President Lee's National Address, May 2010,” May 24, 2010.

[xvi] Aiden Foster-Carter, “South Korea-North Korea Relations: A Turning Point?” Comparative Connections, Vol. 13, No. 2 (September 2011).

[xvii] Ser Myo-ja, “Sympathy note carefully crafted,” Joongang Daily, December 21, 2011.

[xviii] “North Korean military warns of “special actions” against South Korea after failed rocket launch,” CBS News, April 23, 2012.

[xix] Evans J.R. Revere, “Park Geun-hye’s Electoral Victory: A Sigh of Relief from Washington?” Up Front, December 19, 2012.

[xx] Park Geun Hye, “A New Kind of Korea: Building Trust between Seoul and Pyongyang,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 90, No. 5 (September/October 2011), 14.

[xxi] “Timeline of Threat Escalations on the Korean Peninsula, December 2012 to May 2013,” NCNK Issue Brief, May 31, 2013.

[xxii] “Two Koreas agree to reopen Kaesong Industrial Complex,” Yonhap News, August 14, 2013.

[xxiii] Madison Park, “North Korea blames South, cancels family reunions,” CNN, September 21, 2013.; “S. Korean Regime Slammed for Abusing Inter-Korean Dialogue for Pursuing Confrontation,” KCNA, September 21, 2013.

[xxiv] “Koreas Fail to Make Headway on Enhancing Rights of S. Koreans in Kaesong,” Yonhap News, November 21, 2013.