Taking a page out of Bill Simmons’ playbook, I’m commemorating the inter-Korean talks that were held yesterday with quotes from the movie 48 Hrs. (As those who are following this story know, that could be quite a crucial timeframe for determining how long this latest burst of optimism is sustained.)
“I been waiting for a lot of money for a long time, man” – Reggie Hammond
To the North Korean regime. After a seven year hiatus that began when incoming President Lee Myung-bak famously scrapped the 2007 summit agreements that would have brought billions of dollars of investment into North Korea, inter-Korean dialogue finally resumed yesterday at the border village of Panmunjeom. In an indication of just how badly the relationship has deteriorated during the interim – a period that pitted increasingly hostile and desperate moves from the North Korean side against an almost total absence of creativity or initiative from US and South Korean leaders - the mere fact that the two parties are talking with rather than threatening each other has been treated as an overwhelmingly positive development in much of the media. And despite the flippant tone of this post, I would very much agree with this portrayal – after all, it’s been so long since we’ve seen any semblance of progress on the Korean Peninsula that even a meeting between some moderately high level officials feels like a major breakthrough.
“The only thing you’re good for is games! So far, all I got outta you is nothing.” – Jack Cates
Again, to the North Korean side, which has a penchant for backing out of deals, most recently with the proposed family reunions last fall and the short lived Leap Day agreement two years ago. Yesterday, the topics up for discussion included next week’s family reunions, the Park administration’s desire to build a “peace park” in the middle of the DMZ, and the joint US-ROK military exercises scheduled to begin later this month. Representatives from the South also attempted to convey more specifics about Auntie Park’s infamous “trustpolitik” (obviously concluding that their Northern brethen don’t read Foreign Affairs) while their counterparts expanded on the “important proposal” offered by the Rotund Marshal last month.
One ongoing point of contention concerns the fact that the family reunions are scheduled to take place from February 20-25, while the Key Resolve military exercises which the North Koreans have been complaining about repeatedly (and over which they threatened to cancel the family reunions just late last week) are slated to begin on February 24th.
“You switch from an armed robber to a pimp, you’re all set.” – Cates
Applies to all parties, but in this case the US-ROK side specifically. Logical, objective, reasonable people might look at this situation and think, “Well, if we’re trying to build trust, and these family reunions really are a ‘good first step’ to achieving that, why not just move the military training back another 48 hours so that the two things don’t overlap?” In fact, that was what the eminently logical and reasonable Robert Carlin pointed out in an interesting piece on 38North.org, saying that by asking for the exercises to be postponed rather than canceled, the North may signaling its intention to compromise.
“I’m going to lay it out straight, Jack. I don’t like you, and I don’t trust you.” – Reggie
But in going that route, of course, you’d open up yourself up to charges of looking weak and condoning appeasement. Oh, heaven forbid! So what you get instead is Secretary of State Kerry declaring in Seoul yesterday that under no circumstances will Key Resolve be postponed and chastising the North by saying that “there is no reasonable excuse for linking the two.” Showing that he was also not looking for compromise, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se told the NY Times, “there is no difference at all between South Korea and the US on this issue.”
“You said bullshit and experience are all it takes, right?” – Reggie
And what better way to describe 60 years of one-step forward, two-step back negotiation patterns on the Korean Peninsula? On this one, the US and South Korea will probably win out and they will be able to have their cake (family reunions) and eat it too (Key Resolve.) The notion that the North would actually cancel the family reunions for the second time in six months – especially after the turmoil caused by the Jang purge, and the subsequent need to give the public some positive news – strikes me as incredibly cynical/unrealistic. But at the same time, because of the way the regime uses the military exercises to keep the fear factor on high they may be getting exactly what they want out of this, too.
In the short run, things are undoubtedly looking up. However, the lack of willingness to consider even small compromises on the part of the US and South Korea casts serious doubt on whether this recent bit of momentum can be sustained over the course of the coming year. And that’s taking a huge leap in itself by assuming that the North Koreans are even sincere about wanting better relations in the first place. But by demonstrating a complete refusal to discuss rescheduling for a couple of days, what hope does that give that the two sides will be able to make progress in more significant areas? I’ll let Reggie Hammond have the last word: “This ain’t no goddamn way to start a partnership.”