The great bargaining game over the reunions of aging members of about 100 Korean families torn apart by the Korean War is entering a climactic phase with North Korea telling the U.S. and South Korea, cancel your war games or forget about the reunions.
Strategists in Pyongyang are playing at brinksmanship as seen in the declaration by the National Defense Commission, the pinnacle of power in North Korea, that ”dialogue and exercises of war of aggression cannot go hand in hand.”
That’s all by way of explaining why reunions of members of these families – a tiny fraction of the ten million or so families divided by the war – may not be held later this month as agreed on by negotiators on both sides. No way can we hold reunions, goes the message from Pyongyang, while exploding shells, fired in exercises south of the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War, are audible to North Koreans above the line.
Two points emerge from the debacle of the reunions. The first is that North Korea sees the annual U.S.-South Korean exercises as a pretext for calling them off. The second is that South Korean leaders appear embarrassed and on the defensive as they try to persuade North Korea to follow through on the deal.
The North Korean strategy is so familiar, so skillfully executed, that no one thinks it’s the handiwork of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, who holds the title of first chairman of the National Defense Commission. (His father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011, is “eternal chairman.”) The mastermind may be Choe Ryong-hae, a member of the National Defense Commission and political boss of the armed forces,, but whoever’s calling the shots, South Korea and the U.S. are responding with expressions of disappointment as the North Koreans no doubt anticipated.
In that spirit, the South’s unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, responsible for the South’s dealings with North Korea, asked the North “to honor” its agreement. The U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, in response to the North’s complaint about a B52 flight over the Korean peninsula during talks on arranging for the reunion, described the mission as part of “a rotational strategic bomber presence in the region.” The statement, couched in military jargon, said the goals were “extended deterrence,” “assurances to our allies” and “regional security and stability.”
Those words, of course, would only provide more fodder for North Korea’s propaganda machine to accuse the U.S. of plotting dastardy deeds against which the North had to build up its own already massive defenses.
The question, though, is whether North Korea will be really serious about calling off the reunions to be held in the tourist zone at the foot of Mount Kumkang, on the eastern side of the Korean peninsula just north of the line between the two Koreas. Yes, North Korea did cancel reunions last September that would have been the first such gathering since 2010, but Pyongyang has appeared anxious of late to improve relations with the South while purging anyone seen as loyal to the late Jang Song-thaek, the regent-mentor who was executed in December.
Is it possible that North Korean strategists, after loudly denouncing the U.S.-South Korean war games, called Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, will wind up making a show of assenting to the reunions in the interests of reconciliation and cooperation? The U.S. is deliberately toning down the scale of the exercises, not sending an aircraft carrier bristling with warplanes, ready to conduct fake bombing and strafing runs as in previous exercises.
While anything could happen, the odds are not good. Gordon G. Chang, prolific author of books and articles on North Korean affairs, predicts that North Korea will cancel the reunions as it did last fall. “My sense,” he says, “is that reunions will not occur during the first half of this year.”
The reason, Chang says, is “Pyongyang is apparently gearing up for another ballistic missile launch and a fourth nuclear detonation” – and looking for a pretext to follow through on those plans. “To conduct these tests, it needs a justification,” he says. “To create a justification, South Korea must appear hostile. South Korea does not appear hostile when there are reunions.”
South Korea sees the North Korea’s threats to cancel the reunions “as an attempt to either stop our legitimate military drills in the name of the family reunions or scrap the family reunions blaming the military exercises.” The statement appealed to the North to “not repeat its behavior of hurting the elderly separated families who have waited for the reunions for more than 60 years.”
However the North responds, the motivation is not likely to be humanitarian. Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong-il, summarizes the mood. “Same old pattern,” he says. “Nothing changes. They may be warming up but they don’t want to reconcile.”
Source: Forbes Business