Despite lingering hopes, last week's program of reunions between North and South Korea will not lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. When the first reunion was organised in 2000, it was a diplomatic milestone symbolising the end of a long chill between North and South Korea, reaffirming their commitment to reunification. Today, the status quo has evolved so much that the political potency of reunions has all but dissipated.
The most recent crisis, triggered by the wounding of two South Korean soldiers on the Demilitarised Zone, made clear just how much the balance between the countries has changed recently and how the patterns of crisis on the Peninsula are shifting. The marathon negotiations that followed the August crisis ended with North Korea receiving no financial aid and agreeing to express 'regret' for the events. To some commentators, the explanation was simple: it was a testament to the South Korean President's 'grit' and the North Korean leader's 'inexperience.' It's true that South Korea's toughness was a factor, but more decisive was North Korea's realisation that war and crisis is bad for business. Since 2011 North Korea has experienced significant improvements to its economy. After initially problematic attempts to reform its currency, an overall loosening of government regulation has contributed to economic growth and stabilised the North's currency and grain market. In addition, the North Korean regime has increased light manufacturing and begun opening more Special Economic Zones to encourage foreign investment – 13 were opened in 2013 alone. With the pragmatic acceptance that 'illicit' capitalist activity now constitutes a large, and growing, segment of the economy, the North Korean regime has stimulated the economy by reducing regulation. True, this liberalisation is built on a fragile foundation, but a relatively more prosperous North Korea marks an important change on the Peninsula. New levels of wealth in the North introduce new variables into its political calculus. Prosperity broadens the range of political stakeholders in and outside of North Korea and changes priorities. At the time of the first reunion in 2000, North Korea was a state focused on its very survival. North Korean diplomatic efforts, such as reunions, stemmed from an acknowledgement that it needed material and political concessions from the South. However, with imminent collapse no longer a concern, the lack of urgency reduces the promise that reunions can build trust and even 'jump start' dialogue. Reunions should occur regardless of the political circumstances. Besides being the right thing to do for the divided families, North and South Korea need a diplomatic restart that matches today's circumstances. Thankfully, both sides can look to the lessons from the recent 'August crisis.' A silver lining from the crisis was its demonstration of effective diplomacy, with negotiations led by the personal representatives of the Korean leaders: the South Korean national security adviser and vice chairman of North Korea's peak governing body. Repeating and regularising this high-powered and intimate format would match the Peninsula's new reality. It might even set a basis for regularised and apolitical reunions, freeing divided families from the uncertainty of ever meeting their loved ones again.
This article was originally published in The Lowy Interpreter