Counterfactuals may be in vain, yet they are insistent. If Lee Myung Bak had been the pragmatic moderate he claimed to be, and had kept on with his predecessors’ policy of engagement with Pyongyang—as many expected he would—where might Korea be now? Surely in no worse state than today’s edgy gloom, and arguably much safer and better off.
Let us revisit the long-lost autumn of 2007. At the time, this writer held scant hopes of the second inter-Korean summit. After a decade, Seoul’s sunshine policy was looking jaded and one-sided: the sound of one hand giving. I feared that the South’s then president Roh Moo Hyun—in his dog days with just a few months left in office—might just hand over the farm, and that a wily Kim Jong Il would run rings around him on his home turf in Pyongyang. (It was a bad sign that no one insisted on reciprocity; Kim should have, of course, come to Seoul.)
But I was wrong. Roh comported himself with dignity—not always his hallmark—and skill. He did not let the side down, nor was he taken advantage of. Rather, what he signed was a ground-breaking and wide-ranging agreement, full of potential long-term mutual benefit.
Far from continuing one-way aid with little reciprocity, this new accord presaged a move to genuine cooperation in a range of concrete projects. The West/Yellow Sea, whose waters are now so troubled, was to become a special peace and cooperation zone based on the DPRK port of Haeju. The then fledgling Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) would be expanded, with a cross-border railway line linking it to Seoul. Other roads and railways would also be repaired, right up to Sinuiju on the Chinese border. The North’s abundant mineral resources were to be developed together. Joint shipbuilding complexes would be built at Anbyon and Nampo.
Words are easy, but there was action too. A month later the two sides’ premiers met in Seoul to flesh out the details. The accord signed on November 16, 2007 by the North’s Kim Yong Il and the South’s Han Duk Soo—the latter is now the ROK’s Ambassador in Washington—was unprecedented in its dense specificity. Its 2,500 words comprised 8 chapters, 45 clauses, and (crucially) over 20 deadlines to meet, so as to take forward specific aspects.[i]
And meet they did. Then, as now, I tracked inter-Korean relations regularly for Comparative Connections, Pacific Forum-CSIS’s online journal covering key bilateral relationships in or involving East Asia. In late 2007, North-South intercourse suddenly became so dense and intensive that, besides the usual chronology, it took a couple of tables just to list all the new inter-Korean structures and meetings agreed. These are reproduced below, lest we forget.[ii]
Hard as it may be to imagine now, for a few short weeks, as the year—and sunshine—drew to a close, the two Koreas seemed to be getting together almost every day. And not just to exchange pleasantries—though better that than unpleasantries—but to do real, concrete work together. Again, I append part of my chronology from Comparative Connections below.
Thus on a single day (November 27) three separate Southern survey teams headed North to look into tourism to Mt. Paekdu, joint shipbuilding at Anbyon, and hog farming respectively. That same day, a meeting in Kaesong discussed repaving the expressway up to Pyongyang, where the two Koreas’ defense ministers were meeting for only the second time ever.
The next day, Red Cross talks at the North’s Mt. Kumgang resort agreed to hold more reunions of separated families, inaugurate video letters, and look into those missing during and after the Korean War. Kumgang was developed by Hyundai, which on November 3, signed its own accord to expand tourism. That bore fruit a month later with the start of day-trips by coach from Seoul to Kaesong City: a real eye-opener, unlike the rather sanitized Kumgang.
Meanwhile on November 24, 200 tons of graphite, the first fruits of a $10 million joint venture near Haeju—still quietly operating, I’m told—arrived by ship at Incheon. 500 tons of zinc followed on December14, as Pyongyang’s first payment for Seoul’s sending raw materials worth $80 million for Northern consumer industries. More zinc arrived on January 4, 2008.
Was it all plain sailing? Of course not. The defense ministers’ talks got nowhere on a joint fishing zone in the West Sea, because of polemics over the Northern Limit Line (NLL). But they did assure military guarantees for other inter-Korean projects. Joint fishing zones in the East Sea, with no NLL problem, were agreed upon on December 15. The South was to provide fishing gear as payment for fish caught in the Northern seas, and a team would head North a week later to start work on a joint fisheries research and storage center.
I could go on, but this didn’t—more’s the pity. Lee Myung Bak was elected December 19, 2007. Though not in office till two months later, the new man made his influence felt right away. In Lee’s case this was through a hyper-active Transition Committee (TC), which soon let it be known that the Unification Ministry (MOU) was slated for abolition. That negative bid would fail, but it sent a clear signal of a new broom and a chilly wind.
On January 7, 2008 the TC asked the MOU to slow some of the new planned inter-Korean projects, like the Haeju peace zone and Anbyon shipyard, pending their review. All this would, in the future, be linked to nuclear progress in the Six Party Talks. The same day, interestingly, the conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP) urged the TC to be cautious on some fronts, like abolishing the MOU, for fear this would play badly in National Assembly elections in April. Sure enough, on election day, the GNP majority was far narrower than Lee’s in December.
But by then it was all over between the Koreas. A week earlier, on April 1, Rodong Sinmun broke three months of cautious initial silence to blast Lee Myung Bak as “a vicious political charlatan and imposter” and pro-U.S. sycophant. From then on it was downhill all the way.
By its own standards, Pyongyang had been patient. Already on January14, the president-elect criticized the October summit accords as “lacking in details”—quite untrue, as this account has shown. Lee added that his government would review their implementation “from the perspective of feasibility, fiscal burdens on the people and the national consensus.”
The North said nothing (yet), but it got the message. A week later it postponed a meeting at Kaesong on railway cooperation, saying “it is the start of the year and there are a few things to prepare.” Other scheduled talks on proposed cooperation (see Table 1)—natural resources, agriculture and fisheries, environment, forestry, meteorology and more—were cancelled too.
On February 19, a week before Lee Myung Bak’s inauguration, 15 officials from the ROK health ministry joined DPRK colleagues in 5-day site surveys of a hospital in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, and for a planned surgical cotton factory. This was the last visit of its kind. By then, sunshine was over and dark evening shadows warned of the black night to come.
To conclude. Many on both sides of the political spectrum, in Seoul and Washington alike, take an a priori view on North Korea based on ideology. I find that unhelpful. Specifically, I reject what Konrad Lawson in a brilliant phrase has dubbed the “North flank guard”: those for whom whatever Pyongyang does, somehow it’s always really someone else’s fault.[iii]
A better approach is moderate pragmatism—to coin a phrase—and empirical investigation. On that basis, I fail to see how anyone could conceivably claim Lee Myung Bak’s policy on North Korea is superior to the sunshine approach. On no criteria is the peninsula in a better place now, much less a safer one, than it was three years ago. Surely this is a plain and simple fact. (The parallel with U.S. policy as between the Clinton and George W. Bush eras is striking.)
A true moderate pragmatist would have been bipartisan and canny enough to honor accords signed by his predecessor and give them a try. To be sure, it might all have ended in tears. But more likely, South Korea could have gradually and patiently woven tighter structures of mutual interest like the Kaesong Industrial Zone, which still operates in spite of everything. Over time, this would have strengthened Pyongyang’s moderates and weakened the hawks, softening up North Korea in the longer run for eventual peaceful absorption on the German model.
That was the road not taken. Lee’s way—his walking away—at best, hands the DPRK over to China (is that really in the ROK’s national interest?), and at worst, risks war. Were I a South Korean conservative, thinking with head not gut, I cannot see how this was remotely smart.
[i] Full texts of the October Summit Declaration, the Premiers’ accord and other agreements—both before and after—can still be accessed (some more easily than others) on the ROK Unification Ministry (MOU)’s website: http://eng.unikorea.go.kr/eng/default.jsp?pgname=AFFdialogue_agreements. The Summit Declaration can also be found on this DPRK site: http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2007/200710/news10/05.htm#2.
[ii] For the original, see Aidan Foster-Carter, “North Korea-South Korea Relations: Sunshine Deepened, only to Dim?” Comparative Connections, vol. 9, no. 4, January 2008. http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/0704qnk_sk.pdf.
[iii] K.M. Lawson, “The North Flank Guard,” http://www.froginawell.net/korea/2010/12/the-north-flank-guard/. See also his exploration and instantiation of this concept in two concrete instances: http://www.froginawell.net/korea/2010/12/the-north-flank-guard-a-military-exercise-escalated-into-artillery-exchange/ and http://www.froginawell.net/korea/2010/12/the-north-flank-guard-everyday-life-in-north-korea/.
All online sources were accessed and checked as of January 8-9, 2011.
Table 1. New Inter-Korean Structures, as of autumn 2007
- Premiers to meet every 6 months; next meeting by June 2008 in Pyongyang
- Joint Committee for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation (JCIKEC), upgraded to vice-minister level
- Committee to Promote Special Peace and Cooperation Zone in the West Sea (CPSPCZWS)
- Proposed Haeju Special Economic Zone
- Two subcommittees for roads and railways under the JCIKEC
- Subcommittee for the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) under the JCIKEC
- Subcommittees under the JCIKEC for minerals, agriculture, public health, fishery and environmental protection
- Committee to Promote Inter-Korean Social and Cultural Cooperation (CPIKSCC)
- Both governments to actively support inter-parliamentarian talks [no more was heard on this]
Table 2. Inter-Korean Diary Dates Agreed, as of autumn 2007
28-30: 9th round of inter-Korean Red Cross talks, Mt. Kumgang
Working contacts on repair of Kaesong-Pyongyang highway and Kaesong-Sinuiju railway
4-6: First meeting of the JCIKEC, in Seoul
7: Opening of each sides’s offices at the Mt. Kumgang family reunion center [postponed]
11: Daily cross-border rail freight service begins from Munsan, ROK to Bongdong, DPRK, serving the Kaesong Industrial Complex [This only goes as far as Panmun.]
No specific date set:
- Joint fishing subcommittee
- CPSPCZWS, in Kaesong
- Subcommittee for shipbuilding and maritime transport under the JCIKEC, in Pusan
- Second on-site survey of Anbyon and Nampo for shipbuilding
- Geological survey for the second-stage development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex
- First meeting of the Joint Committee for Inter-Korean Railroad Operation in Kaesong
- Working level contacts to expedite Kaesong IC
- Third on-site mining survey at Tanchon and elsewhere
- Working meeting for opening direct Seoul—Mt. Paektu tourist flights, in Kaesong
- Working contact on joint cheering squad to go by rail from Seoul to the Beijing Olympics
- Working contact on meteorological cooperation
- Working level contacts and on-site survey for Haeju Special Economic Zone and port
- Initiate agricultural cooperation, including building seed production and processing facilities and genetic resources preservation facility
First half of 2008:
- Joint fishing to start
- A ship block plant to be built at Anbyon, DPRK
- Specific mining plans to be set
- CPIKSCC to meet
- Sample video messages to be exchanged between separated families
June 15, 2008: Joint event in Seoul to mark the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000
- Haeju special economic zone
- Begin excavation of sand and gravel at the Han River estuary
- Joint cheering squad to travel by train from Seoul to the Beijing Olympics
- Second-stage construction of Kaesong Industrial Complex
- Communications centre (10,000 lines) at Kaesong Industrial Complex
Table 3. Inter-Korean Cooperation, autumn 2007–early 2008 (selected)
(With acknowledgments to Comparative Connections, where this chronology first appeared)
Nov. 24, 2007: 200 tons of graphite, the first output from a $10 million joint venture processing plant near Haeju, arrives by ship at Incheon.
Nov. 27, 2007: Three separate Southern survey teams visit the North, respectively to look into tourism to Mt. Paekdu, joint shipbuilding at Anbyon, and hog farming.
Nov. 28, 2007: A joint working-level meeting in Kaesong discusses repaving the Kaesong-Pyongyang expressway.
Nov. 27-29, 2007: Meeting for only the second time ever, in Pyongyang, the two Koreas’ defense ministers fail to agree on a West Sea fishing zone due to the usual stalemate over the NLL issue. But they do agree on military guarantees for other inter-Korean projects.
Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 2007: Ninth round of Red Cross talks, held at Mt. Kumgang, agrees to expand separated family reunions, inaugurate video letters, look into those missing during and after the Korean War, and meet again when a permanent reunion center opens.
Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 2007: Kim Yang Gon, the DPRK’s intelligence chief, makes a previously unannounced visit to South Korea. His itinerary includes Daewoo’s shipyard.
Dec. 4-6, 2007: The Joint Committee for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation (JCIKEC), newly promoted to deputy minister level, meets in Seoul and agrees further on implementing joint projects.
Dec. 5, 2007: Hyundai Asan inaugurates regular day trip tours from Seoul to Kaesong.
Dec. 11, 2007: Daily rail freight service begins across the DMZ, travelling 10 km between Munsan in the South and Panmun in the North. The train reportedly often runs empty.
Dec. 12-14, 2007: Talks between generals at Panmunjom fail to break the deadlock over the NLL, ending with no joint statement or press release. They do agree on security guarantees for the Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang zones: entry and customs procedures will be streamlined, and South Koreans may use the internet and mobile phones.
Dec. 14, 2007: 500 tons of DPRK zinc, worth $1.2 million, arrive at Incheon as the first payment for the South’s sending materials worth $80 million for Northern consumer industries. Although Seoul’s annual supply of rice and fertilizer is nominally also a loan, MOU says this is the first time Pyongyang has ever repaid any debt to South Korea.
Dec. 14-15, 2007: Meeting in Kaesong, both Koreas agree on proposed joint fishing zones east of the peninsula (where there is no NLL issue). The South will provide fishing gear as payment for fish caught in Northern waters. A 20-strong ROK survey team will go North on Dec. 21-25 to start work on a joint fisheries research and storage center.
Dec. 18, 2007: The ROK Commerce, Industry, and Energy Ministry (MOCIE) leads a 37-strong official and business group—including representatives from Samsung and Daewoo, respectively the world’s second and third largest shipbuilders—on site visits to check the feasibility of plans to cooperate in shipbuilding at Nampo and Anbyon, DPRK.
Dec. 19, 2007: Lee Myung Bak of the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) wins South Korea’s presidential election, on a platform that includes a harder line towards North Korea. Lee polls 49 percent of all votes. Ex-unification minister, Chung Dong Young, standing for the pro-Sunshine United New Democratic Party (UNDP), takes only 26 percent. The hard-right Lee Hoi Chang receives 15 percent.
Dec. 23, 2007: In the first reported Northern comment on the South’s new president-elect, Senior Cabinet Councilor Kwon Ho Ung, the North’s chief delegate to inter-Korean talks, says he hopes this will not change “the general trend of inter-Korean cooperation.”
Dec. 25, 2007: The two Koreas and China meet in Pyongyang to discuss supplying non-oil energy aid. This is the first formal Six Party Talks related meeting to be held inside North Korea.
Dec. 25-28, 2007: The North-South subcommittee on shipbuilding and marine cooperation holds its first meeting in Pusan, South Korea’s second city and main port.
Dec. 28-29, 2007: Meeting in Kaesong, the Koreas agree to conduct a one-day survey on Jan. 31 toward establishing a joint economic area around the DPRK port city of Haeju.
Jan. 4, 2008: A second load of DPRK zinc reaches Incheon, completing the North’s initial e-payments under the raw materials for minerals barter deal (see Dec. 14).
Jan. 7, 2008: The conservative Grand National Party (GNP) asks president-elect Lee Myung Bak’s transition committee (TC) to be cautious in some contentious areas, such as abolishing the unification ministry (MOU), which it fears may harm the party in National Assembly elections due on April 9.
Jan. 7, 2008: The TC asks MOU to slow some inter-Korean projects, like the Haeju peace zone and Anbyon shipyard, pending their review. Such plans—but not humanitarian aid—may in future be linked to nuclear progress in the Six Party Talks. MOU pleads not to be abolished, and for already agreed North-South meetings and surveys to go ahead as scheduled.
Jan. 7, 2008: Hastening to tack to the new wind in Seoul and save its own skin, MOU puts to the TC the idea of making aid to North Korea conditional on repatriation of Southern POWs and abductees, thought to number 548 and 485 respectively (with perhaps a further 80,000 taken North during the Korean war, who are on no one’s agenda). It cites Germany as a precedent, where West Germany paid the former East to release political prisoners.
Jan. 11, 2008: Choi Won Ho, president of a South Korean fast food franchise, says he will open Pyongyang’s first chicken and beer takeaway and delivery service (by motorbike) in February, in a restaurant joint venture with the North’s Rakwon General Trading Co.
Jan. 14, 2008: In his New Year news conference, Lee Myung Bak says he will cooperate fully with North Korea—if it adheres to denuclearization as agreed in the Six Party Talks. To that end, he is ready to meet Kim Jong Il any time—but only in Seoul. Calling accords reached by his predecessor Roh Moo Hyun at last October’s summit, “lacking in details,” Lee says his government will study their implementation “from the perspective of feasibility, fiscal burdens on the people and the national consensus.” Pyongyang has yet to comment on Lee or his election.
Jan. 21, 2008: Pyongyang postpones at short notice 2008’s first scheduled inter-Korean meeting, due on Jan. 22-23 in Kaesong to discuss railway cooperation, on the ground that “it is the start of the year and there are a few things to prepare.” This is taken as signaling that the North is unsure of the intentions of the South’s incoming government. Other talks on cooperation in natural resources, agriculture and fisheries, environmental protection, forestry, meteorology and public health are also due before end-February; few happen.
Jan. 25, 2008: Working-level military talks at Panmunjom on security aspects of joint economic projects make little progress. The North again suggests reducing the daily cross-border rail service, which often runs empty. The South resists this for the sake of regularity.
Jan. 29-30, 2008: At the postponed working-level railway talks in Kaesong, it is agreed to retain daily service but to remove empty freight cars. Southern officials acknowledge that their 50-plus SMEs in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) prefer the flexibility of trucks and road transport, since the train is slow and does not directly serve the zone.
Feb. 4, 2008: Meeting in Kaesong, the two Koreas agree to send two 300-strong joint cheering squads to the Beijing Olympics in August. They will go by rail across the DMZ, on the first train to travel from Seoul to Beijing in over half a century.
Feb. 9, 2008: The Seoul press reports, as is later confirmed, that after inter-party talks, the incoming administration will after all retain the unification ministry (MOU), but with less power. Lee Myung Bak had proposed to abolish it, along with four other ministries.
Feb. 12-13, 2008: Working talks in Kaesong on joint highway repairs in the North adopt a joint report on two site surveys carried out in December, but fail to agree on how to further inspect and renovate the Kaesong-Pyongyang road.
Feb. 19, 2008: 15 officials from the ROK health ministry join DPRK colleagues in 5-day site surveys of a hospital in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, and for a planned surgical cotton factory. This was one of the projects agreed at last October’s summit.
Feb. 25, 2008: Lee Myung Bak of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) is formally inaugurated as the ROK’s 17th-term president for a five year term. DPRK media ignore this, but stress the need for great unity of the whole nation on the principle of independence.