The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, and the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, have recently taken significant steps towards the reduction of mutual tensions and differences. On August 17, North Korea announced it would relax border controls for South Korean business visitors and facilitate family reunions. The second move covers 10 million people affected by the partition of Korea, which in 1953 ended the Korean War. Reunions are to occur at the eastern coast site of Mount Kumgang during the three-day Harvest Festival, when Koreans traditionally visit their home towns; this year’s festival starts on October 3. Tourist groups, consisting mainly of South Koreans, are also to be allowed to visit the historic city of Kaesong on the western coast — starting, according to North Korea, as soon as possible. These developments end the embargo on cross-border visits, which began when a South Korean tourist visiting Kumgang was shot by a North Korean border guard in 2007, in an incident very differently described by the two sides.
All the recent moves indicate a mutual willingness to strengthen substantive links. They serve as reminders that what external observers tend to see as bellicose talk by North Korea is often an understandable response to events elsewhere. The North Korean government is said to have been bitterly hurt by President George W. Bush’s 2002 comment that it was part of an ‘axis of evil.’ As a result, the annual six-party talks hosted in Beijing and involving North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have produced little of substance. In addition, North Korea expelled all nuclear inspectors following the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of its failed satellite launch in April 2009. It has also threatened to leave the six-party group permanently. Pyongyang came up with an angry response to the current round of the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, only this time a North Korean spokesperson has called the response a routine denunciation. Relations between the two Koreas have been inconsistent and variable for more than half a century. They are likely to remain unsettled until a permanent peace treaty replaces the armistice that concluded the war. The hope is that the positive steps taken recently by the two states will constitute a decisive advance towards such a treaty.