Robert E. Kelly

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with Robert E. Kelly, associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, about talks between South Korea and North Korea, the South’s sluggish economy and China-South Korea ties.

Robert E. Kelly

Following working level talks on Sunday, North and South Korea pledged to hold ministerial level talks in Seoul on Wednesday. By Tuesday, things had collapsed. What happened?

There seems to have been a flap over diplomatic protocol between the two. An agreement on what rank of ministerial official would attend could not be reached. This was somewhat surprising, because there was wide consensus that China had arm-twisted the North into these talks. Without China, North Korea would likely collapse, so many thought the North Koreans would actually attend, even if they obfuscated as usual.

Walking away is not only a way for the North to assert its sovereign distinctiveness from the South – always important for a state whose legitimacy is permanently under question – but also to push back on China. The North does not want to take orders from China any more than from anyone else. Like North Korea, China too values the protocols and signifiers of rank in world politics. So North Korea’s use of a gimmick like the defense of its “national honor” was a great way to drop out of the talks and rebuff China along lines China can’t really reject. It’s fairly clever, if that was indeed Pyongyang’s goal.

Where do you think things go from here? Do you think there will end up being ministerial level talks in the near future or are we back to square one?

There will be talks, although I don’t have a good sense of what level they will occur at, after the North Koreans raised such a fuss this time. On the North Korean side, talks serve multiple goals. They keep China at least somewhat appeased, so that the aid keeps flowing. This is especially important after the Obama-Xi summit. Talks get the South Koreans at least considering the re-provision of aid. Talks also help delegitimize the South Korean right, which wants no aid extended, by making Seoul conservatives look like dangerous hawks. Along the same lines, talks keep the Americans at bay. Finally the North Koreans most likely want the Kaesong industrial zone re-opened. That yielded $100 million a year in legal monies that North Koreans are hard pressed to find elsewhere. To do so, North Korea must talk to South Korea.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

On the South Korean side, public opinion strongly supports negotiation with the North. President Park came in promising some kind of new relationship (Trustpolitik) in the place of the cold war-style stand-off of her predecessor. So she wants talks too.

The problem to my mind is that talking with North Korea often becomes an end in itself – process for process’ sake. Given that North Korea is constantly looking to bolster its legitimacy, talks themselves are often valuable to North Korea. They suggest that North Korea is in fact a real state, not an Orwellian gangster fiefdom. The North Koreans are entirely happy to string out talks and hem-and-haw over countless details, because they aren’t actually interested in some kind of final deal, and certainly not in denuclearization. Instead, the point is to keep talking ad infinitum, so that North Korea remains a center of global attention and can continue to extract aid.

In a recent piece in The Diplomat, you noted that South Korea’ Finance Minister claimed Abenomics is a bigger threat to South Korea than North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This, to me, was indicative of the degree of concern over the sluggish ROK economy despite the recent pick up reported. How does the Park administration intend to stimulate the economy and will it work in your opinion?

I would actually disagree that South Korea’s economy is sluggish, if judged by the “new normal” standards of the post-Great Recession world economy. By that benchmark, Korea is doing rather well. Growth and employment are better than in many other OECD states; the Gini coefficient is lower than many realize. The real economic issues to my mind are inflation, high consumer debt, and the weak won. And these are all linked. The Korean government is adamant in preventing the won’s appreciation because of the central role large exporters (chaebol) play in Korean politics. Sanitizing the won’s appreciation reduces domestic purchasing power, by unfairly raising the price of imports.

Consumers respond by borrowing to fund a lifestyle the weak won cannot sustain. The result is a rash of credit card debt and the ubiquitous quick-loan commercials on TV here. I’ve seen little from the Park administration that targets these structural issues. Sure, she can spend more money in classic Korean dirigiste fashion; Korea’s healthy budget balance will support pork-barreling and white elephants. But Park has already backed away from her campaign pledge to rein in the chaebol. Without that, it is hard to see the lot of the median Korean consumer improving in the medium-term.

Later this month, ROK President Park Geun-hye will be visiting China where she will meet with President Xi Jinping. What is your assessment of the current state of Sino-ROK relations and what do you think will be Park’s primary objectives for the trip?  

The conventional wisdom is that South Korea is caught between China and the U.S. China is its number one trading partner, and the two share a long, mostly peaceful cultural history. On the other side, Korea shares liberal democratic political values with the U.S., and the U.S., unlike China, is genuinely committed to Korean unification. So Korea is torn between the two.

This is true as far as it goes, but democratic values are increasingly deeply rooted in the Korean public (if not necessarily among conservative elites), so for myself, I find it hard to imagine Korea siding with China in the end. So long as China is a one-party state propping up North Korea (another one-party state), South Korea’s relationship with China will be utilitarian, not friendly. That doesn’t mean it is bad – just functional and business-like.

Park’s trip will almost certainly strike a professional, pragmatic tone – the promotion of trade, concern for the treatment of North Korean refugees, and maritime stability along China’s coast. This is fairly traditional national interest stuff one would expect among two neighbors. I see little reason to expect any kind of breakthrough or shift in the realpolitik tenor of the ROK-PRC relationship. Only if South Korea takes a truly amoral, disinterested stance on the North, would a real embrace of China be possible.

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website,