Border Control: Rising Tensions Between North & South Koreas

With all the news regarding North Korea lately, I'm reminded that I'm living in a country that it still technically at war. The past two South Korean presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Lee Myung Bak's predecessor Roh Moo Hyun, presided over a decade of good relations with North Korea. Kim Dae Jung created a so-called "Sunshine Policy" with the North, a policy based on an old Aesop Fable.

In the fable, the Wind and the Sun argue over who is the most powerful. They agree to a competition, in which they would see who could strip a Man of his clothes the fastest. The Wind goes first. He blows with all his might, but the stronger his blasts, the closer the Man wraps his cloak around him. Losing all hope of victory, the Wind calls upon the Sun to see what he can do. The Sun shines out with all his warmth and the Man is soon stripping off his clothes, one after another. Finally, so overwhelmed with heat, the Man fully undresses and bathes in a stream. The moral of the story is, of course, Persuasion is better than Force.

So, Kim Dae Jung gave North Korea rice, fertilizer, and other aid with little talk of the North returning any favours. Roh Moo Hyun continued this policy, afraid that criticizing North Korea would cause greater problems for this troubled peninsula. The result of this aid was a very slight opening of North Korea. Tours in the Demilitarized Zone along the border and resorts built in North Korea became opportunities for a few visitors to peek into North Korea. In 2005, South Korea and North Korea opened a joint industrial complex comprised of seventy South Korean factories in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kaesong Industrial Park employs the cheap labour of over 23 000 North Korean workers under the guidance of hundreds of South Korean managers. In October 2007, Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong-il, the infamous North Korean leader, held the second-ever inter-Korean summit.

When Lee Myung Bak was elected in December last year, he promised harsher policies against the North and greater ties with the US. He said humanitarian aid would continue, but that greater aid and further cooperation from the South would rely on the North giving up its nuclear weapons. North Korea was supposed to declare its missile capabilities by the end of 2007---a deadline it missed. Again, last week, both the US and South Korea reminded North Korea it needs to declare its capabilities.

There was some news on 26 March about the UN vote on alleged human rights violations in North Korea. Lee Myung Bak is showing how different he is from the previous two South Korean presidents by stating that he is not able to ignore the human rights violations and that he's not afraid to tell North Korea what he thinks. South Korea stated it will vote against North Korea---something it hasn't done in years---and will investigate the allegations.

Early in the morning on 27 March, North Korea kicked 11 of 13 managers out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It was a surprising move by the North, most likely a retaliation against South Korea's stronger policies. Last week, South Korea told North Korea that an expansion of the complex would be reliant on the denuclearization process.

Then, on 28 March, North Korea test-fired short-range missiles off its west coast into the Yellow Sea. South Korean officials just stated that they considered it to be regular military training. Back in 2006, North Korea test-fired missiles, shocking and undoubtedly embarrassing South Korea and its Sunshine Policy, which then drew criticism that its aid (some of it in cash) was possibly helping fund North Korea's nuclear program instead of helping the North Korean people.

The most recent news came a week later, on 3 April, under the headline "North-South Korea border tensions rising." North Korea says it will close its border to South Korean officials, as well as stop all cross-border discussions between North and South Korea. This apparently is due to South Korea refusing to apologize for its comment that South Korea would pre-emptively strike if it thought an attack from the North was imminent.

Even with all this action going on, you'd never guess it just walking around the city. No one seems to worried, which is comforting. It will be interesting to see how Lee Myung Bak's new policies will affect relations between the two Koreas. He's only been in office a month, and already it seems as though things will be very different from the previous decade. While it seems unlikely that anything actually dangerous will happen any time soon, I will continue to watch the headlines and learn more about the issues, just in case.

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)