Getting North Korea to Talk: Why It's a Seesaw


Reunification, a goal claimed by both North and South Korea, seems to be a faraway dream. As the North reels under a worsening famine, the world - and especially South Korea - watches nervously from the sidelines.

Repeated efforts at dialogue have failed. The latest talks between the two rivals just collapsed in Beijing.

Last week the highest defector from the North, Hwang Jang-yop, was reported to have said the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, believes in a military solution to the standoff, including suicide attacks on US aircraft carriers, and the use of nuclear weapons.

"Four party" peace talks proposed in 1996 involving the North, South, China, and the US are still on the table. It seemed that the North almost agreed last month. But most observers say that North Korea has never seemed sincere about peace.

Since 1972, Pyongyang has engaged Seoul in various talks, usually when it felt isolated or thought it could get the upper hand in trying to split the United States from its South Korean ally. Although dialogue sometimes produced cooperation - cultural exchanges, a unified sports team, reunions of separated families, limited trade - Pyongyang often suspended dialogue, sometimes with dire threats.

Origins of the conflict

At the end of World War II, the Soviets and the Americans carved up spheres of influence, cut Korea in half, and sparked a war that ended only with an armistice in 1953, not a peace treaty. Although superpower rivalries initiated the standoff, it is now fueled by two intensely competitive Korean governments.

The tense standoff has lasted for decades, and the border is perilously close to the South Korean capital. It's as if Central Park in New York were a foreign army base, and just over the border in Connecticut (where the North New Yorkers lived) a brainwashed army of 1.2 million were poised to invade.

Early Dialogue: 1970s

The two Koreas first began talking via the Red Cross in the early 1970s. Warming Sino-US relations made Pyongyang nervous, and it hoped to avoid isolation. China fought alongside the North in the Korean War and remains its closest ally. In 1972, both sides signed an agreement to open liaison offices in the border town of Panmunjom, agreed to promote inter-Korean dialogue, and to discontinue slander and armed provocations.

But the next year dialogue ended. Some analysts say both sides were only interested in the propaganda it generated, while others say - as they have every other time Pyongyang has walked away from the table since - that North Korea fundamentally fears engagement.

Any opening would undermine the lies Pyongyang had been feeding its people about the outside world.

Different approaches

Pyongyang regards unification as completion of its

Communist revolution, rather than a process of integrating two different parts. Seoul, meanwhile, hopes to build trust through cultural and economic exchanges and seeks to rehomogenize a people long divided. Unlike the North, Seoul says political issues should be addressed last.

Hard-liners here worry that if Pyongyang's political demands - withdrawal of US troops and a repeal of the South's anti-Communist laws - are met, South Korea would be more vulnerable. And North Korean officials, who have little idea how the South's democracy works, are suspicious of different opinions generated by South Korea's free society.


The Koreas managed to share the same Olympic team in Los Angeles in 1984. But when Seoul was chosen as the site for the 1988 Olympics, North Korean terrorists bombed a South Korean airliner in 1987, hoping to dissuade visitors from attending the Games.

In 1985 several families separated by the national division were reunited, but that too, didn't last long. And preparatory talks for a meeting of prime ministers were held, then abandoned. Economic talks in 1984 led to limited trade beginning in 1989.

Divergent economies

Around the time Hyundai cars became popular in America, South Korea's economy boomed. In the late 1980s exports nearly doubled while growth was 12 percent a year.

South Korea's growth prompted North Koreans to seek international investment using a 1984 joint-venture law. But China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, which showed the turmoil economic opening could bring, shocked Pyongyang, and further plans were shelved.

Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the transformation of Pyongyang's patrons, China and the Soviet Union, North Korea's economy has spiraled downward. Recent devastating floods have pushed the faltering economy to the brink of ruin. Factories operate at less than 30 percent of capacity, and this month, the government admitted that children were starving to death.

Early 1990s

Although Pyongyang and Seoul held high-level talks, and in 1992 signed agreements on "reconciliation, non-aggression, exchanges and cooperation" and "de-nuclearization," they were never implemented. The next year, North Korea denied access to its nuclear program and announced its intent to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The escalating tensions were resolved only when a consortium - the US, Japan, and South Korea - agreed to pay for most of two light-water reactors and supplies of fuel oil negotiated in return for the freezing of the North's nuclear program.

Wanting something for nothing

With its main bargaining chip - the threat of war - Pyongyang has been brazen and successful in negotiations. While receiving free nuclear power plants and later free rice, it has continued to insult South Korea's leaders and step up war preparations. By Seoul's count, it has violated the Armistice 410,000 times since it was signed in 1953.

Analysts say North Korea's juche, or ideology of self-sufficiency, ultimately means renouncing all reciprocity. "Their idea of a normal relationship is someone who will give them vast amounts of money and goodies and demand nothing in return," says one Western observer.


These days observers are not optimistic. "They're not thinking peace. They're thinking survival," says Woo Jae-sung, president of the Freedom Center in Seoul. "One thing they don't understand is that unless they have a very radical reform ... they can't survive."

The Pyongyang leadership will want reassurances of their future safety, but observers say they can be reassured by pointing to China and Vietnam, Communist-run states that have moved to market reforms while keeping strong party leadership.

QR Code to Getting North Korea to Talk: Why It's a Seesaw
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today