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July 2015: Summer Heat Only Leaves the Small Stuff in Inter-Korean Relations

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

When it’s a hot summer day in July, one often has to make the strategic calculation of what particular circumstances would require one to leave the friendly confines of a place with working air conditioning. Similarly, it seemed the two Koreas were only going to deal with each other during July under specific conditions. Consistent with many of the interactions in inter-Korean relations recently, the two sides had some significant disagreements that overshadowed the few positive interactions. There’s hope that the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in August will provide another context for exchanges; however, the political environment suggests that inter-Korean relations will be more on a shorter term, project-to-project basis rather than on a consistently sustainable basis.

For the two Koreas, there were plenty of reasons not to step outside their current comfort zones and engage in a more meaningful way. The month started off with North Korea boycotting the Universiade Games that took place in Gwangju, South Korea; the reason was believed to be in protest of the United Nations human rights office being set up in Seoul to collect evidence of North Korean human rights violations. Despite Kim Jong-un emphasizing the importance of sports for North Korea, the possibility for another inter-Korean meeting similar to the one at the end of the Incheon Asian Games last year vanished. In addition, despite production at the Kaesong Industrial Complex increasing, the two sides still had trouble with the negotiations over wage disputes. Lastly, North and South Korea bickered over the repatriation of North Korean fishermen whose boat drifted into South Korean waters. South Korea repatriated two of the fishermen but said the other three truly wanted to defect to South Korea.

However, the two Koreas were able to have some smaller slices of interaction. A main effort in July was the two countries working together to study the “abnormal symptoms” that were being displayed by the pine trees in the Mount Kumgang area of North Korea. This forestry effort, along with reports that universities in South Korea, China, and North Korea will share reforestation data and information, provided that small opportunity for positive inter-Korean relations. There is also hope that there will be more interaction soon. The widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Lee Hee-ho, is scheduled to travel to North Korea in early August. There is also hope for a possible joint celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Japan’s occupation of Korea.

July was another month of relatively limited interaction between North and South Korea and no clear possibility for large scale engagement. The disagreements still seem rather contentious and the positive exchanges weren’t significant enough to change the larger calculations between the two sides. Individual joint Korean projects like the forestry cooperation might have to be the way forward for now until a better overall framework and sentiment allows for a more fully, consistent, and sustainable platform for inter-Korean relations.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Mike Rowe’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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