Korean Peninsula Returning from Brink?

August 24th, 2015 by

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It would appear that the weeks-long standoff between North Korea and South Korea is beginning to calm down after officials from the North—finally—offered a statement of contrition for the death of a pair of South Korean soldiers in an incident involving land mines that were allegedly placed by North Korean operatives. After 3 days of long negotiations in which North Korea played its typical script of denial and aggressive rhetoric, an apology was issued on Tuesday (in Asia; Monday in the West).

Tensions and intermittent skirmishes continue, however, as the two sides have yet to agree to high-level talks to smooth over the two countries’ sour state of diplomatic relations.

In response to the standard line of bellicose grandstanding by the North Koreans and their supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Park Geun-hye (granddaughter of former president Park Chung-hee) fired back with her own strong rhetoric, refusing to back down to North Korean threats of war. Park, the first female president of South Korea, defiantly insisted on leaving in place massive banks of loudspeakers that blasted pro-Western propaganda across the demilitarization zone into the North.

Standing Firm

Amid mixed messages from Kim and the North, South Korean officials took an equally hard-line stance. North Korea mobilized 50 of its military submarines and claimed it was moving soldiers into position for an ad hoc ground war, an unsurprising step by the world’s leading nation in issuing empty threats. Yet, the inexperience of Kim Jong-un, who took over for his father in 2011, along with the general unpredictable nature of the North Korean regime have forced South Korea not to take any chances.

Although far wealthier (and stronger in a military sense, thanks to U.S. backing) than its Northern counterpart, the South Korean market was hit hard by the uncertainty surrounding the standoff: the won, the South Korean currency, sank to a 4-month low; the nation’s largest exchange-traded product saw its heaviest outflow of funds since it was founded 15 years ago; and over $900 million of investor money was pulled out of the South Korean equities market.

A Checkered History

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Since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), a tenuous truce has been upheld by the two countries, with the North-South divide at the 38th parallel. Though this truce has been tested periodically over the decades by the North Koreans, no full-scale battles have taken place between the two sides. However, North Korean commandos did attempt to assassinate the South Korean president in 1983, though the regime has always denied their involvement.

“Sunshine Policy” Abandoned

In the late 1990s, the two sides attempted to gradually normalize relations through a series of measures (known as the “Sunshine Policy”) meant to ease tensions and align the interests of the two Koreas.

In fact, President Park has extended the olive branch to the totalitarian regime to the North more than any of her predecessors. According to a report from Bloomberg,

“Park has maintained a promise of large-scale economic assistance if Kim shows he’s serious about ending his nuclear ambitions and penchant for provocative behavior. She has called for starting from small-scale gestures such as reviving family reunions to build trust that could be the base for greater political reconciliation.”

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With the increasingly aggressive behavior from North Korea in recent years, the “Sunshine Policy” was largely abandoned. In addition to the families and generations torn apart by the civil war, the political cultures of North and South Korea have also diverged, with the latter aligning itself with the United States and the former essentially considered a “rogue state.” It remains to be seen if the current resolution will lead the two countries closer to a future unification, or is merely a band-aid on what has the potential to be a persistent geopolitical problem.