x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Koreas locked in brinkmanship

Analysis North Korea has threatened to sever virtually all ties with the South from Dec 1.

A protester holds an anti-US banner with a picture of the president-elect Barack Obama, during a rally in Seoul.
A protester holds an anti-US banner with a picture of the president-elect Barack Obama, during a rally in Seoul.

BEIJING // In what some call Pyongyang's first major act of defiance since Barack Obama won the US presidential election, North Korea has threatened to sever virtually all ties with South Korea from Dec 1. The notification came as part of a barrage of threats Pyongyang made last week. It refused nuclear sampling by international inspectors, threatened to restrict and shutter the border it shares with South Korea, said it would seal off the Red Cross liaison office and unplug all the direct phone lines between the two Koreas.

The dizzying list had been somewhat expected. Pyongyang, it was believed, would try to "snub" South Korea, its enemy for the past 60 years, when Mr Obama was elected. The Pyongyang strategy then would sidestep Seoul to directly reach Washington, being led by a more flexible Democratic president, who during the campaign trail repeatedly said he would be willing to have a direct dialogue with the Stalinist regime to resolve the stalled nuclear talks.

The world, despite being used to Pyongyang's quirky brinkmanship and diplomatic blackmail, responded by putting on the table exactly the two cards Pyongyang expected: alarm and disarray. Initially, analysts speculated that the North's move had a two-fold message. One was to raise its strategic profile in its dealings with the post-election United States. The other was to tame Seoul, which had been mounting - in the words of North Korea's state media - a "confrontational" stance against Pyongyang. Now, it is increasingly clear that it is the latter.

The news hit South Korea particularly hard. Political parties in the South have become bitterly divided over how to respond to North Korea's new gamble. Supporters of engaging North Korea criticised the president, Lee Myung-bak, for the tough stance he has taken on North Korea since his election in February, reversing the decade-long "sunshine policy" of his liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Severing the cross-border relations is an especially emotional issue for many South Koreans. As many as one quarter of the country's population have family members living in North Korea, separated since the Korean War. Hope for reunion is rapidly decreasing because many are believed to have died as the North-South divide prolongs. Any South Korean president seen as bringing about the end to cross-border relations endangers his political career.

North Korea has watched the internal strife in South Korea with a smirk. "Pyongyang appears to be passing the ball into Seoul's court to pressure the Lee Myung-bak administration," said Lee Hee-ok, of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. "The deadlock may last long unless Seoul makes the moves that Pyongyang wants it to make." Those "moves" would be a conciliatory gesture. But they are not guaranteed. Even though a delegation of South Korean opposition members is visiting Pyongyang with a message from the Seoul government to placate North Korea, one of the bedrock platforms Mr Lee promoted as a presidential candidate was to stand firm against North Korea.

Mr Lee has repeatedly said his government would not expand inter-Korean co-operation projects unless Pyongyang abandons all of its nuclear ambitions first. This time, faced with North Korea's threat of cutting off relations, Mr Lee could not have been more blunt: "Sometimes, to wait it out can be a strategy." Han Suk-hee, of Yonsei University in Seoul, gave his vote of confidence to Mr Lee. "North Korea is turning to stubbornness again. We just have to wait. There is no need for us to open a door for it first."

Conservative media outlets that helped Mr Lee get elected are also encouraging him not to budge. Their prediction: it will be North Korea that is pressed harder economically. That attitude worries Prof Lee. "Time may not be on President Lee's side. If Seoul does not take actions to mend its ties with the North, or just keeps silent in a move to ignore North Korea, North Korea will gradually raise the bar."

Prof Han disagrees: "North Korea doesn't have an alternative. Its economic situation is not good. We shouldn't give in to its demands." A spokesman for South Korea's unification ministry, Kim Ho-nyoun, downplayed the North's threat, saying he did not believe the North intends a complete border closing. Mr Kim may be wrong. A proud country, North Korea might be compelled to prove its stance by knowingly making the self-defeating choice - even at the expense of the considerable economic benefits generated by the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an industrial manufacturing site run by South Koreans within North Korea. Severing inter-Korean relations would also mean discontinuation of southern investment in the North.

Worse, while Seoul prolongs its "wait and see" strategy, Pyongyang's patience may run out. On the current impasse, a North Korea diplomatic source predicted a bad ending. "The Lee Myung-bak government seems to indulge itself in the erroneous belief that it's high time to teach a lesson to North Korea. It had better let it go now. If not now, it will be too late." A Chinese scholar said it is actually South Korea that does not have an alternative. "I believe South Korea will definitely give in and compromise its stance," said Shen Dingli, a nuclear security analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai. "South Korea doesn't have an alternative."

What options does South Korea have? he asked. "Will it go to a war with North Korea?" Prof Shen then offered a fresh perspective on North Korea's recent move. He said the outward threat was, in fact, a disguised cry for help. "North Korea's purpose is not to sever its relations with South Korea. The real motivation behind is to let South Korea compromise and act in a way beneficial to North Korea," he said. "Eventually, it wants to recover and improve its relationship with South Korea."

Perhaps decoding the North Korean psychology in this manner is one way to see the silver lining in the crisis. Pyongyang did not completely break off communication with Seoul, but "seriously restrict" it, leaving room for further dialogue. Also, the deadline is Dec 1, not today. * The National