My ‘Diplomat’ Interview: the Inter-Korean Talks Collapsed over a very Korean Hang-up over Rank and Status


I write for the Diplomat magazine occasionally, and they just interviewed me on the collapse of the recent high-level inter-Korean talks. This is a re-print of that interview. It might seem ridiculous to non-Koreans, but Koreans take rank and status pretty seriously (because Korea is such hierarchical culture IMO). So a break-down over who out-ranks who (which is what happened) is not too extraordinary given the shared cultural context. Here’s that interview:


Diplomat: 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, NK would likely collapse, so many thought the NKs would actually attend, even if they obfuscated as usual. On the other hand, concern over rank and status is very deeply rooted in Korean culture. Hierarchical relationships of senior and junior are common, so if either side perceived the other to be under-cutting its status, that would go down pretty badly – especially in NK which is hyper-sensitive to condescension and its lack of recognition by critical states like the US, SK, and Japan.

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 anymore than from anyone else. Like NK, China too values the protocols and signifiers of rank in world politics. So NK’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.

Diplomat: 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 NKs raised such a fuss this time. On the NK 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 SK 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 NKs most likely want the Kaesong industrial zone re-opened. That yielded $100 million a year in legal monies that NKs are hard pressed to find elsewhere. To do so, NK must talk to SK.

On the SK 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 mind is that talking with NK often becomes an end itself – process for process’ sake. Given that NK is constantly looking to bolster its legitimacy, talks themselves are often valuable to NK. They suggest that NK is in fact a real state, not an orwellian gangster fiefdom. The NKs 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 NK remains a center of global attention and can continue to extract aid.

Diplomat: In a recent piece on The Diplomat, you noted that South Korea’ Finance Minister recently 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 SK’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, bridges to nowhere and un-used airports. 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.

Diplomat: 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 SK is caught between China and US. 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 US, and the US, 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 NK (another one-party state), 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 NK 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 break-through or shift in the realpolitik tenor of the ROK-PRC relationship. Only if SK takes a truly amoral, disinterested stance on the North, would a real embrace of China be possible.

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