After forty-three hours of intense high-level talks, the two Koreas released a six-point joint communiqué on August 25, 2015, to de-escalate recent tensions on the peninsula. In this new Q&A, Duyeon Kim provides insight into the turn of events and the communiqué. Kim says that fully implementing the deal is key, and that if done right, it could pave the way for improved inter-Korean relations. However, she cautions, the long haul begins now, and it is only a matter of time until the North unleashes more provocations undermining the August 25 deal.

What caused the recent tensions to escalate?

Duyeon Kim
Kim is an expert on nuclear nonproliferation, diplomacy, and Northeast Asia.
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Tensions arose after a land mine explosion in early August injured two South Korean soldiers on the southern part of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas. Seoul and the UN Command blamed Pyongyang for intentionally planting fresh land mines—thereby violating the armistice and the South-North nonaggression pact—which Pyongyang has denied.

In retaliation, the South resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda, using loudspeakers along the border for the first time in eleven years. Kim ordered his troops to a “quasi-state of war,” primarily in demonstration against the loudspeakers. It might also have been an attempt to use ongoing U.S.–South Korean military drills on the peninsula to catalyze tensions to solidify Kim’s power. Pyongyang imposed an unusually specific forty-eight-hour deadline for Seoul to shut down the loudspeakers by 5:00 p.m. on August 22 or face military action.

Before the clock ran out, however, the North proposed high-level talks in the border city of Panmunjom. The so-called 2+2 meeting was held on the South’s side of the border to defuse recent tensions—while both countries’ militaries maintained pressure and combat readiness. Under the terms of the agreement the two sides negotiated, Pyongyang expressed regret regarding the land mine incident and Seoul agreed to halt its propaganda broadcasts.

Was there a real possibility of conflict or full-scale confrontation on the Korean Peninsula prior to the high-level talks?

There is always the possibility of conflict brought on by miscalculation or unintended consequences, given the high level of tension, but this particular incident was unlikely to be the trigger.

Provocations from North Korea are nothing new, but the latest situation was still tense. The conventional wisdom is that Pyongyang would not start a war that could lead to the fall of the sixty-seven-year-old Kim regime. However, Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his late father as North Korea’s supreme leader in 2011, is unpredictable and seems determined to show his strength to consolidate his power. This raises the possibility of miscalculation and unintended consequences whenever there is an escalation in tensions.

This minicrisis shows that Kim is willing to ratchet up tensions to the brink—raising the stakes higher than in standoffs under his predecessors—and that South Korean President Park Geun-hye is willing to stand ready to retaliate sternly.

At the same time, however, most specialists believe that the latest threats and escalation were not intended to ignite conflict, particularly as U.S.–South Korean military drills were taking place on the peninsula through August 28. However, the next move for Kim Jong-un’s North Korea would have been unclear if the allies were not engaged in joint drills. This gives weight to the belief that a U.S. military presence is critical to the stability of the peninsula, despite the North’s claim that the withdrawal of troops would make the peninsula more peaceful because it would negate the Kim regime’s need to react militarily.

In the unlikely event that the North had attacked the loudspeakers, Seoul would have faced immense domestic pressure to retaliate with force, especially because it was unable to react militarily after Pyongyang shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, killing four South Koreans and injuring nineteen. But the United States would, again, have urged South Korea to exercise restraint as Washington, along with UN forces and Beijing, would not want to be pulled into another Korean War.

Why is North Korea sensitive about the South’s loudspeaker campaigns?

Information that could challenge the legitimacy of the Kim dynasty’s three leaders is perceived as a grave threat to regime survival. The broadcasts are damaging to the dignity of the regime, and shutting down the loudspeakers has been among the North’s top demands in past inter-Korean talks.

The latest minicrisis reconfirms the effectiveness of the loudspeakers, as well as the North’s fear of them. The inability to control information prevents Pyongyang from maintaining as firm a grip as it would like, which is why the loudspeakers are a powerful, nonviolent means of hitting the regime where it is most vulnerable.

The North Korean masses are too far away to hear the loudspeakers, though in 2004, the North said the programs could be heard by residents near the city of Kaesong, roughly 8 miles from Panmunjom.

However, soldiers—particularly young ones—deployed along the tense border after receiving strict training in the regime’s ideology of juche, or self-reliance, could be swayed by the hours-long messages. In the past, the messages are believed to have spread to North Korean citizens via letters written by soldiers to their families. Seoul adopted this tactic of psychological warfare in 1962 in order to demoralize North Korean soldiers. This time, broadcasts included enticing K-pop songs by popular girl bands and programs praising the South’s democracy and affluence while shaming Kim Jong-un.

Why did North Korea propose talks with the South well before the end of its forty-eight-hour ultimatum?

No one knows North Korean intentions with absolute certainty, but Pyongyang often ratchets up tensions, perhaps as a means to, in its view, enter talks from a position of power.

In this instance, the North might have quickly proposed talks because it feared that a military response would be risky at a time when many military assets were deployed for U.S.–South Korean drills. It is also noteworthy that the North, in a rare display of respect, used the South’s official name of the Republic of Korea, and it did not use derogatory terms like “puppet” when announcing the talks on its state-run media. This signaled the North’s resolve to engage in serious negotiations.

Was anything significant about the negotiators involved?

The 2+2 delegation roster was both obvious (military heads) and interesting (point men on inter-Korean affairs).

The North’s decades-long orchestrator of cross-border issues, Kim Yang-gon, requested to meet with the South’s National Security Office chief, General Kim Kwan-jin. However, Seoul instead asked for the North’s Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, which is noteworthy because Hwang represents the North Korean military and is believed to be one of Kim Jong-un’s closest confidants, and because protocol calls for matching the ranks between lead negotiators.

In response, Pyongyang requested Seoul’s minister of unification, Hong Yong-pyo, which seemed to suggest the North’s desire to discuss a range of inter-Korean issues, including the lifting of South Korean sanctions. This gave Seoul room to expand the agenda to include the resumption of reunions of family members separated since the 1950–1953 Korean War.

Why did the talks turn into a marathon?

It is common for the two Koreas to hold round-the-clock negotiations until either an agreement is reached or one side, usually North Korea, storms out in a rage. Both sides entered this meeting far apart in their maximalist demands, signaling extremely tough negotiations ahead: South Korea demanded an apology for the land mine explosion, while North Korea demanded a halt to the loudspeaker broadcasts.

From the start, it was unimaginable that Pyongyang would offer an explicit apology with a fairly new leader in power, particularly when it had publicly denied responsibility numerous times. Park also stood her ground, declaring publicly that anti-Pyongyang broadcasts would continue until North Korea apologized and agreed to prevent further escalation.

It is notable that Kim Jong-un’s negotiators broke from past practice and did not storm out of this meeting. This affirms Pyongyang’s political will to reach a settlement, and it might even be a glimpse into Kim’s negotiating style. In addition, there was the issue of the U.S.–South Korean military exercises, which increased the risks involved with the North breaking off talks.

More importantly, it suggests that the North Korean delegation’s marching orders—to shut down the loudspeakers—were very clear, particularly when these negotiations were also shown live to the leaders of both states through CCTV cameras installed in the meeting room. This enabled both Park and Kim to provide further guidance in a timely manner by phone, notes, or hotline. Thus, the talks can be seen essentially as a negotiation between the two Korean leaders themselves rather than by proxy.

What did the two Koreas achieve?

Both Koreas achieved their top demands—albeit with some compromises—as revealed in their six-point joint communiqué, though the two sides released slightly different official versions.

South Korea’s gains were outlined in the following clauses:

  • “The North expressed regret over the injuries of the soldiers of the South caused by the recent landmine explosions that took place in the southern area of the Demilitarized Zone along the Military Demarcation Line.” The subject, the North, is clear, whereas past statements of regret were more ambiguous. It is more implicit than the explicit apology demanded by Park, and it is not a direct admission of responsibility. But it is a rare North Korean statement and the most realistic outcome for Seoul under the circumstances.
  • “The North will lift its quasi-state of war.” This point de-escalated recent tensions. For example, 70 percent of the North’s total submarine force (about 50 vessels) had been deployed before the agreement, and they began returning to port after the deal.
  • “The South and the North agreed to arrange reunions of separated families on the occasion of Chuseok [Sept 27] and continue such reunions in the future” and, in a separate clause, “agreed to boost non-governmental exchanges in a wide range of fields.” These are perhaps the most eye-catching deliverables for both publics and show the governments are trying to improve relations first via people-to-people exchanges. NGO exchanges could also mean resuming previously agreed-upon programs like joint sports and cultural events. In the past, Seoul had agreed to halt sending balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the border in exchange for family reunions, but the North later backed out and the reunions never materialized.

North Korea’s gains were summed up in the following point:

  • “As long as no abnormal incident occurs, the South agreed to suspend all loudspeaker broadcasts along the Military Demarcation Line, effective 12:00 p.m. August 25.” This achieved Pyongyang’s top demand in full, although the loudspeakers remain mounted. The phrase “as long as no abnormal incident occurs” is likely Seoul’s way of keeping the propaganda option open in the event of unexpected situations or provocations after the deal. It might imply an agreement by the North to refrain from escalating tensions aimed at the South in the near future. It also reaffirms the coercive utility and impact of the loudspeakers.

The successful conclusion of the talks not only de-escalated tensions but also provided a face-saving opportunity for both leaders to claim victory at home. It seems to vindicate Park’s principled approach to end the North’s vicious cycle of provocations while keeping the door open for dialogue. Pyongyang can proclaim that the young Kim’s mighty feat prevented war on the peninsula by forcing Seoul to stand down—particularly notable because the agreement was made on the North’s Son-gun Day, a celebration of its military-first policy.

Another takeaway is that the North’s provocations failed to drive a wedge between South Korean conservatives and progressives. Both political camps stood united in denouncing the North after the land mine explosion. The South Korean opposition party even joined the ruling party in lauding the Park administration for the successful talks.

Is North Korea’s expression of regret the same as an apology, and is it enough?

Context is important, particularly in diplomacy and inter-Korean affairs. In this case, the clause can be regarded as a tacit North Korean apology and admission of responsibility; an explicit apology was unfortunately an unrealistic expectation. The North has apologized for provocations only once in the past and expressed regret over only three other incidents, most recently in 2002.

The Seoul government treated the regret as a tacit apology, as evidenced in the press conference given by Kim Kwan-jin after the negotiations and in its decision to strike a deal. Meanwhile, some pundits and opposition party politicians themselves expressed regret about Seoul’s inability to extract an apology because the North’s statement can be interpreted literally to mean “it is unfortunate that the South Korean soldiers were injured in a land mine explosion.”  

Many South Koreans understand the reality of limitations when it comes to North Korea, but an expression of regret would not be enough in their hearts.

Why do the two Koreas have different versions of the joint communiqué?

This is common for inter-Korean talks, particularly when they produce a joint communiqué as opposed to a formal agreement. This format allows each side, especially the North, to save face and trumpet the deal to its domestic constituents as a victory. Both governments typically are aware of the other party’s version before the public announcement.

One notable difference between the versions is the North’s insertion of the phrase “at that time” in the fourth clause of its English-language release (the official Korean-language text says “at the same time”):

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.
4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

It appears Pyongyang wanted to stress its principle of action for action that has been a common negotiating position in previous bilateral and multilateral negotiations. The insertion—and being able to spin the order of points 3 and 4—might also be the regime’s attempt to show the North Korean people that it had the upper hand in negotiations by forcing Seoul to concede first.

What is the significance of the deal? What does it mean for the future of cross-border relations, and will this agreement lead to an inter-Korean summit?

The latest deal is another indicator that the two governments can successfully defuse standoffs and avoid conflict through dialogue. It also reinforces the view that while the North’s Kim family needs to sustain tension for domestic legitimacy, it is not willing to risk inadvertent conflict.

However, it is still too early to pop open the champagne bottle. While the forty-three-hour-long negotiations were surely strenuous for both governments, the real negotiations and challenge begin now with implementing what on paper is a relatively simple deal. The family reunions, which Park has been unable to implement since taking office, will be an important indicator for near-term inter-Korean relations. As mentioned, Pyongyang has a track record of finding a pretext to delay or cancel the reunions, and that remains a possibility at this time.

In addition, it is only a matter of time before Pyongyang acts provocatively again—whether it is via nuclear or missile tests, a cyberattack, or even another military provocation that is difficult to attribute directly to the North. Specifically, the North may decide to provoke again in a show of force celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the North’s Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10. Massive celebrations will also commemorate what Pyongyang believes to be its founder Kim Il-sung’s mighty victory that liberated Korea from Japanese imperialists. This means that the family reunions are unlikely to be held sooner than mid-October, and a provocative celebration may spell bad news for the reunions.

It is too early to link the deal to prospects for an inter-Korean summit. The agreement will need to be implemented far enough without hiccups before such a meeting is contemplated. Early this year, both Korean leaders expressed their openness to a tête-à-tête, but each has also emphasized a summit can only be held under the right conditions.

Does this inter-Korean deal have implications for jump-starting nuclear negotiations with North Korea?

This remains to be seen. And while there is no direct linkage between the two sets of talks, there is a historical precedent of one dialogue track providing a positive atmosphere in which to engage in the other.

However, the fundamental objectives for each track are different, so the latest inter-Korean deal will not directly jump-start the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has made clear that while it is open to unconditional bilateral talks, Pyongyang must take certain steps to show it is serious about denuclearization before six-nation talks. Meanwhile, the North currently is not interested in nuclear talks with Washington.