Sitting down at the negotiating table for the first time in more than six years high level officials from the two Koreas Feb. 14 managed to firm up an agreement to hold family reunions later this month. The gathering of aging relatives separated since the Korean War had been in peril over North Korea’s veiled threat to scuttle the reunions if upcoming U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises go ahead. Families from North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to meet at the Mount Geumgang resort in North Korea on Feb. 20–25. A team of South Korean officials are now ironing out details in North Korea.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry visiting South Korea Friday congratulated the Park Geun-hye administration on her “Trustpolitik” policy for dealing with North Korea and the potential “bonanza” available should the two Koreas come to terms.
“We very much welcome president Park’s efforts to build trust, which I believe can lead to improvements to North Korea’s human rights situation and ultimately lay the groundwork for peaceful reunification of the Peninsula,” Secretary Kerry said.
On the issue of the joint U.S.-South Korea drills, the U.S. diplomat emphasized that the military exercises were not something to be considered in tandem with other goals.
“… it is not appropriate to link the humanitarian issue such as reunification with any other issue. The exercises are exercises that are not changed, not bigger, not different, occurring at exactly the same time as they have occurred every year,” said Kerry.
Joint military drills involving U.S.-South Korea forces called “Team Spirit” were scheduled and then cancelled from 1994 to 1996 in an effort to improve relations between the United States and South Korea with North Korea, and to encourage Pyongyang to work toward denuclearization.
America’s top diplomat reiterated the U.S. conditions for renewed negotiations with North Korea.
“We will not accept talks for the sake of talks. … the DPRK must show that it will negotiate and live up to its commitments regarding denuclearization.”
Engagement was also a hot topic at a gathering of North Korea experts, mostly leaders of NGOs, held at Korea University and hosted by the Asia Institute and fledgling Arirang Institute. Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea suggested it was unlikely that the United States would spend more political capital on attempting to engage North Korea due to Pyongyang’s cancellation of visits by Robert R. King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues. American officials had hoped King could secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American serving a 15-year sentence for unspecified crimes against North Korea. Reports indicate Bae may have been undertaking covert Christian missionary work, reported to be widespread, subtly tolerated, yet illegal in North Korea.
The conference of North Korean NGOs however focused on strategies being taken at the grassroots level in terms of engagement. Park called North Korea “one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today,” suggesting relatively few resources are devoted to the issue, while insisting the solution essentially lies with North Koreans themselves. While Park points out that U.S.-North Korea relations have remained on essentially the same nuclear-obsessed track since the early 1990s, North Korean society has undergone remarkable change. That’s backed up by a body of research outlining the effect of the famine in terms of fostering an underground market economy. Influencing ordinary North Koreans in a bottom up approach to societal development is where Park finds potential.
“I think it’s more interesting to look at North Korean society and the chance to make progress happen there, because in contrast with the level of international politics, North Korean society is very different than it was twenty years ago, even ten years ago, even five years ago, frankly even since 2009 or 2010.”
The entry of the Arirang Institute onto the field of North Korea NGOs underscores the potential some see in direct contact. Former U.S. armed serviceman Michael Lammbrau launched the institute this month hoping to “create a stronger social network and hopefully strengthen the ties with the North.”
A PhD. candidate at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, Lammbrau explains how close we are to communicating directly to anyone in the world.
“If you look at social network analysis you’re no more than five people away from President Obama or Park Geun-hye … through that kind of power we just want to reunite people, bring them together to talk to each other, and maybe we can make progress on the issue.”