A Korean Helsinki Process?

SEOUL – Last month, North and South Korea narrowly avoided a catastrophic military confrontation. After 40 hours of strenuous negotiations, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker broadcasts into the demilitarized zone between the two countries, in exchange for the North expressing “regret” for the South Korean soldiers killed by a landmine blast in the DMZ three weeks earlier.

While the crisis featured North Korea’s familiar belligerence and aggressive rhetoric, there were also some interesting new twists. Understanding these developments could help to generate enough momentum to initiate, after more than seven years of confrontation, genuine inter-Korean cooperation and help guide the peninsula toward a more peaceful and secure future.

The first new development is the South Korean leadership’s much firmer response to provocations from the North. In 2010, the South Korean public was sharply critical of the military’s failure to retaliate immediately following the North’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship carrying more than 100 personnel, and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island later that year. After the recent landmine blasts, by contrast, President Park Geun-hye would not back down from her demands that the North, which denied planting the mines, apologize. Her approval ratings soared to 50%, from around 34% the previous month.

This shift, while popular in South Korea, carries serious risks for the peninsula. If an unyielding South becomes engaged in another military game of chicken with the often-audacious and always-erratic North, the results could be catastrophic. In this sense, an institutional framework for permanent inter-Korean peace is more urgent than ever.