Is a New Stage Coming for the Koreas?

The nuclear crisis barometer on the Korean peninsula has risen and fallen numerous times during the 20 years since North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty on March 12, 1993.

However, while some fear that North Korea and South Korea-US are like trains on course for a head-on collision, it seems probable that they are on their way to some new stage. For now, despite bellicose rhetoric from both sides, the hardliners in Seoul and Washington appear determined to ignore the North. Some dovish decision-makers have recently insinuated that the US and South Korea should listen to what North Korea has to say.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye reportedly said that: "We have a lot of issues, including the Kaesong Industrial Complex. So should we not meet with them and ask, 'Just what are you trying to do?'"

Also, conspicuously not taking the usual photo op on a viewing platform at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), US Secretary of State John Kerry underscored in downtown Seoul on April 12 that the US is open to negotiations if the North commits to eventual denuclearization.

Prior to this, after sending the B-1s and B52s in overflights, the US rescheduled an intercontinental ballistic missile test scheduled for mid-April to May in an effort to avoid any misperception or chance of manipulation from the North.

Are we, then, witnessing a shift in foreign policy in order to give North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, some sort of off-ramp on which to save face? Otherwise, is it safe to say that the North might have to launch a destructive but unwinnable full-scale war against South Korea and the US in one way or another to save the leader's face, rather than living by bluffing?

In either case, what's certain is that time horizons, short or long, are functioning as key drivers of action in inter-Korean relations, as if the two rivals are exploring how they actually could make trade-offs.

In particular, given that the North's bellicose rhetoric is strategically for both internal and external audiences, it is quite unnecessary for external audiences to stay the course in consideration of a miscalculation.

Two years ago a US-based North Korea watcher diagnosed Kim Jong-un as a pity, saying the leader "lost his father and inherited the worst job in the world and found himself in an uneasy place." She also added that "the suddenness of Kim Jong-il's death has sparked fears of instability, with dangerous implications for the peninsula, East Asia and the world."

Referring to North Korea's recent series of deliberate escalations, a number of North Korea experts outside the government in Seoul judge that the fragile regime continues to be ruled by a triumvirate of Jong-un, his powerful uncle Jang Sung-thaek and battalions of young loyal militants.

Although a fuller picture requires more good intelligence, in their view the young Kim seems to be protected by an elaborate security apparatus. Some left-leaning observers predict optimistically that Jong-un will likely have an excellent chance to rule into the next decades.

That said, whether or not their optimism is entirely merited, North Korea's recent die-hard threats offer proof that South Korea's and the United States' policies toward the North had failed. Given that the uncertain leadership highlights the daunting challenge of what to do with the state, it is no exaggeration to say that the bleak situation on the Korean peninsula could be a much more worrisome one than most policy-makers and analysts at home and abroad have expected.

First of all, history shows that many wars or crises are frequently preceded by failures to predict what others will do, despite the fact that most theories of international politics assume that key actors see the world fairly accurately. Misperceptions of the regime in Pyongyang could turn a minor problem (seemingly mere provocative rhetoric in consideration of complicated domestic politics) into a major crisis (the restarting of a reactor with enough plutonium to produce additional nuclear weapons).

North Korea's first nuclear test in October, 2006 offers a good example. In accordance with the Bush administration's statement that it would not engage the "axis of evil" before the North would give up its nuclear program, the administration cancelled a promised heavy fuel oil shipment to the north instead of solving the problem diplomatically at the highest level of the administration.

North Korea went into action as if waiting for the decision, removing all the seals and monitoring equipment from the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and taking steps to unfreeze, including preparations for loading fuel rods. While the Bush administration, already preoccupied with its roadmap for Iraqi invasion, had no penchant to launch a pre-emptive strike in response, few people doubted that the military options that the administration could have employed must be heroic, myopic and hideous.

We are sometimes told that North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November 2010 as well as the Cheonan sinking were good reminders that the generals should respond aggressively to any North Korea attack, rather than passively awaiting an order from the presidential office. This is not to say that the military leadership is prone to any kind of 'fire' that could easily lead to a catastrophe. Both countries remain technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

President Park also stressed that as the commander in chief, she will trust the judgment of the military, calling for them to respond powerfully and "without any political consideration" if the North makes any moves.

In the meantime, the desk-bound academics and pundits who are fond of drawing the overarching concepts that explain all and cure all, predict pessimistically that Park's landmark policy toward North Korea, 'trustpolitik' aimed at "establishing mutually binding expectations based on global norms," will not likely work, unless South Korea and the US can convince the impoverished, tightly controlled nation that genuine cooperation is their best interest.

In her op-ed piece to Foreign Affairs in 2011, Park, then a member of the National Assembly of South Korea claimed that "if North Korea launches another military strike against the South, Seoul must respond immediately to ensure that Pyongyang understands the costs of provocation. Conversely, if North Korea takes steps toward genuine reconciliation, such as reaffirming its commitment to existing agreements, then the South should match its efforts."

True, there is little doubt that the philosophy of trustpolitik made sense as long as a long-term strategy. Essentially, the president has offered to open the window of dialogue toward the North in an attempt to minimize the imminent risk.

The prospects for change in inter-Korean relationship appear dim. And it is almost impossible to fathom what the North Korean leadership thinks, except to assume that the leadership tends to like gambles with tiny payoffs but a high probability of winning rather than those with poorer odds but higher payoffs.

It means that the unthinkable may become thinkable, largely depending upon how we perceive the North, which already said that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable and portrayed them as its "treasured" guarantor of security, regardless the Obama administration's wishes.

President Park will visit Washington on May 6-8, for her first summit with Obama. It is generally agreed that the two leaders are likely to discuss over how to rein in the increasingly hostile North. The US visit will be Park's first overseas trip since she took office in February, which symbolically demonstrates the significant of the ROK-US alliance.

It is not impossible to hear from Obama again that "My personal friendship with President Park and my admiration for her continues to grow" after wrapping up the summit, as he talked to Lee at a Group of 20 meeting in Toronto, 2010. But there are reportedly some officials in the Obama administration who suspect Park might go extreme if the communist North were to make a critical assault, because of her tragic family history. It's time for the officials to prove that they are right or wrong.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul)