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Back from the Brink? Prospects for Inter-Korean Dialogue, Past and Present

October 15, 2009 // 3:30pm5:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program
Asia Program
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In 1970, a fundamental shift occurred in the major power alignments in East Asia. With relations between the USSR and China declining over the previous decade to the point of military skirmishes along their long common border, Chinese leaders understood that they could not withstand the sustained enmity of two global powers and cautiously sought to improve relations with the USA as the lesser of the two threats. By 1971, the new US-China entente was strong enough for both to urge their respective Korean allies to seek a negotiated settlement to the Korean question, and in the same year, Seoul and Pyongyang embarked on face-to-face negotiations.

Contemporary relations between the two Koreas have shown recent signs of improvement after reaching a nadir in the wake of South Korean President Lee Myungbak's 2008 inauguration. North Korea has expressed regret for recent actions against the South, and Red Cross talks to regularize the reunions of families long dispersed on the divided Korean Peninsula have resumed. Will this improvement be just another respite in inter-Korean tensions, as was the case in the early 1970s, or is North Korea prepared to come "back from the brink" and establish a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Bernd Schaefer explained that newly unearthed East German and Romanian diplomatic materials suggest that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung embraced dialogue with the South as a means to reunify the divided peninsula under his own rule. Kim was encouraged by South Korean President Park Chung Hee's poor performance in the 1971 election, and by what he perceived as America's "surrender" to Communist China through Nixon's visit to the PRC. Schaefer explained that Kim Il Sung genuinely believed that the population of South Korea desired unification under the northern regime, and that this needed to be achieved before the gap in economic prosperity between the North and South became insurmountable.

North Korea's hopes for unification were dashed, according to Schaefer, following Park Chung Hee's declaration of martial law and implementation of the Yushin authoritarian system in October 1972. Despite having been notified in advance, the North Korean leadership reportedly felt betrayed by Park Chung Hee's adoption of the Yushin authoritarian system, which it characterized as an "evil deception." By 1975, North Korea revived its militarist strategy of reunification, though without the support of China.

Jongdae Shin described the motives of South and North Korea's leaders in seeking a negotiated settlement to the zero-sum game of mutual hostility. He argued that South Korean President Park Chung Hee only reluctantly accepted the US suggestion to talk with North Korea in order to deter the outbreak of another war on the Korean peninsula and buy time for South Korean economic development. According to Shin, Park later came to think of the talks with the North as a way to fortify what he perceived as a loosening US-ROK alliance. Park also used inter-Korean dialogue to justify the introduction of his Yushin authoritarian system in October 1972.

As for North Korea, Shin argued that Kim Il Sung did not have any real interest in easing tensions on the Korean peninsula through inter-Korean dialogue. He desired a change in U.S. policy toward North Korea. In particular, Kim's strategic interest remained the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea and the collapse of the U.S.-ROK alliance. North Korea agreed to China's suggestion of a negotiated settlement with the South with the understanding that the PRC would play an active role as arbitrator, exploiting Washington's desire for good relations with Beijing to secure the withdrawal of American forces from the Korean Peninsula. As Shin argued, once it became clear that Beijing would not be able to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Korea, North Korea once again pursued a strategy of military adventurism to reunify the peninsula under its own auspices.

Shin noted that even though the practical results were negligible, through inter-Korean dialogue, the two Koreas benefited in important ways from the experiment in coexistence. From an historical perspective, inter-Korean dialogue was a turning point in North-South relations, holding out the possibility, for the first time, of mutual cooperation and the eventual peaceful reunification of the divided peninsula.

Sunwon Park provided an overview of subsequent, if only temporary, periods of improved inter-Korean relations. Park noted that unlike in the early 1970s, when the United States and China pressured the two Korea's to engage in discussions, in the post Cold War era, a combination of internal and external crises shape North Korea's approach to South Korea. These include the collapse of the Communist Bloc, economic hardships and famine in the 1990s, and recent questions surrounding the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now that Kim has reaffirmed his tight grip on the political leadership following the formation of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly from which Kim was given a 3rd term as Chairman of the NDC, North Korea appears to be ready for dialogue.

Discussant Gregg Brazinsky praised the empirical richness of the three presentations, all based on newly declassified documents from South Korean, Eastern European, and Chinese archives. In particular, Brazinsky noted that the Schaefer's presentation provides a fascinating description of how the North Korean leadership viewed the South Korean political system and the South Korean people. Their analysis of the political system was much more accurate than their understanding of the people, who they still believed would rise up and support the North. Brazinsky suggested that the presenters did not spend enough time explaining the significance of inter-Korean dialogue in the early 1970s or in answering the question "Why did détente fail in Korea?" Why did it "fizzle out" so quickly in Korea and why is it important for researchers and policymakers alike to study? Brazinsky agreed with Shin's suggestion that the most important legacy of this brief period was the notion of peaceful reunification through dialogue, which began with these talks.

Drafted by James F. Person, Program Associate, HAPP (NKIDP)
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Senior Program Associate
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant