Agreement to ease Korea tensions raises hope of better relations
SEOUL, South Korea — The two Koreas’ ability to defuse an escalating crisis raises hopes that they may be able to negotiate other improvements in their tangled relationship and suggests that youthful North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may be shrewder than most people thought, analysts say.
Key to the succinct, six-point agreement — announced in the early-morning hours Tuesday after three days of marathon negotiations — was Seoul’s agreement to halt loudspeaker broadcasts of anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the border.
In exchange, the North agreed to lift its self-declared semi-state of war and admit “regret” over the Aug. 4 land mine explosions that wounded two South Korean soldiers on patrol in the Demilitarized Zone — the incident that set off an increasingly tense standoff. A U.N. Command investigation blamed the North for the attack, which it denied.
The acknowledgement of regret instead of a more explicit apology allowed Pyongyang to skirt responsibility for the incident and allowed both sides to back off without losing face.
Kim ascended to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. Since then, hopes for change in North Korea’s policy of belligerence had largely been dashed, as he appeared to be following in his father’s footsteps. Purges of high-level officials raised questions about how much control he had been able to consolidate.
“Kim, I think, has finally got a feel for things. This experience of juggling many balls has matured him, though I feel he has been more rational than most give him credit for,” said David Garretson, a retired professor of international relations at the University of Maryland University College in Seoul.
Both sides were under outside pressure to talk — the South from the U.S., and the North from China and Russia. And, he said, both sides were looking for an excuse not to escalate tensions.
“What is interesting is the North seems to have good command and control and is not acting ‘crazy,’ ” Garretson said, noting that South Korea’s behavior in recent days has also been measured.
“Kim Jong Un is much more calculating and careful than we knew,” said Kim Jung Bong, a former diplomatic and security official at Cheong Wae Dae, the South Korean president’s office. “We have to take him seriously.”
Now a professor of administration at Hanzhong University in Donghae City, Kim said the apparent close coordination between the U.S. and South Korea played a key role in pushing Pyongyang to resolve the crisis.
The allies briefly halted the ongoing Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise last week to coordinate after an exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas along the DMZ and flew fighter jets across the peninsula Saturday as a warning to the North. South Korean officials hinted at the possibility that the the U.S. would deploy nuclear-armed submarines and B-52 bombers to the peninsula.
“It made North Korea tremble,” he said. “The U.S. and South Korea showed they can work together and they will punish the North absolutely.”
Yoo Chan-yul, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, said the negotiations and military posturing “had turned into a game of chicken.”
But South Korea’s decisiveness and refusal to back down on the propaganda broadcasts despite North Korea’s Saturday evening deadline for them to end ultimately forced Kim Jong Un to back down to save face.
But by backing down, Kim showed political savvy.