(AFP, Daily Mail, 12 February 2016) North and South Korea’s perennially volatile relations seem headed for a new and potentially dangerous low, with all official lines of communication cut off and a host of tension-raising issues on the near horizon.
The two rivals, who have remained technically at war over the past six decades, have faced and weathered numerous crises in the past, but the current situation feels particularly grim in the wake of the North’s recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.
Any hope of compromise or dialogue seems to have been indefinitely shelved, with a leader in Pyongyang confirming an unwavering commitment to nuclear weapons development, and a counterpart in Seoul determined to react firmly — and proactively — to any North Korean provocation.
And the standoff is taking on wider Cold War-like dimensions, with the divisions between the main parties to the North Korean nuclear issue — China and Russia on one side, the US, South Korea and Japan on the other — increasingly stark and antagonistic.
The new mood on the divided peninsula played out this week in the effective termination of the sole remaining North-South cooperation project — the Kaesong joint industrial zone lying 10 kilometres (six miles) over the border in North Korea.
– A talisman for ties –
Despite its obvious vulnerabilities, Kaesong had taken on a talismanic image by riding out pretty much every inter-Korean crisis thrown up since it opened for business in 2004.
“In a way, it’s a miracle it lasted that long,” said Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the Australian National University.
But on Wednesday, Seoul announced it was suspending all operations of the 124 South Korean companies in Kaesong, and yesterday Pyongyang responded by expelling all the firms’ managers and freezing their factories’ assets.
The North placed the complex under military control, while the South cut off all power and water supplies.
“I don’t see any way back for Kaesong now,” Petrov said. “It’s gone too far and there’s no real will in the North or South to work it out.”
Kaesong was born out of the “sunshine” reconciliation policy of the late 1990s.
One of the roles initially envisaged by Seoul was of Kaesong as a beachhead for market reforms in North Korea that would spread from the complex and expose tens of thousands to the outside world’s way of doing business.
Although that vision never materialised, some analysts still mourned its demise for closing a small but crucial open door on the world’s most heavily-militarised border.
– ‘Great leap backwards’ –
“With no Kaesong, South and North Koreans will no longer be in contact anywhere on a regular basis. That is a great leap backwards,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert based in Britain, wrote for the NK News website.
Chang Yong-Seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said one of Kaesong’s most important contributions had been to help keep inter-Korean rivalries in check.
“The Koreas both had a stake in Kaesong so they were able to restrain each other in some ways, but now that has all gone out the window,” Chang said.
The space for communication between Seoul and Pyongyang shrank further on Thursday, when the North announced it was cutting the last two remaining communication hotlines with the South.
The hotlines themselves have never been used for conversational diplomacy, but they were key to setting up meetings where such discussions could take place.
The severing of all contacts comes ahead of a period when crisis-control talks could be most needed.
– Tensions ahead –
North Korea will likely react strongly to whatever sanctions the UN Security Council eventually agrees to impose over its nuclear test and rocket launch.
Then in March, South Korean and the United States will kick off a series of annual military drills that the North views as rehearsals for invasion and which always see a spike in tensions.
Pyongyang’s claims of provocation over the exercises should be especially shrill this time, as Seoul and Washington also begin talks on deploying an advanced US missile shield in South Korea.
“South Korea and the US have said the drills will be on an even larger scale than usual which is sure to meet a big backlash from North Korea,” said Chang.
“So, with all this, I think we’re going to see tensions running at a level incomparable to previous years,” he added.