The head of South Korea’s working-level delegation Lee Duk-haeng, center right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Yong Il, center left, during their meeting at Tongilgak in the North Korean side of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/South Korean Unification Ministry)
The head of South Korea’s working-level delegation Lee Duk-haeng, center right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Yong Il, center left, during their meeting at Tongilgak in the North Korean side of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/South Korean Unification Ministry)

While trust and empathy are in short supply in most of Northeast Asia, no bilateral relationship epitomizes this better than inter-Korean relations. North and South Korea have lived through more than 60 years of tension and profound distrust since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a conflict that remains formally unresolved to this day. The Korean peninsula’s “division system” is as precarious as ever, as both Seoul and Pyongyang believe the other seeks to undermine its system. Official pronouncements by both capitals betray their lack of mutual trust and suspicion, which adds a layer of difficulty to any attempt at rapprochement. Recently, for instance, this lack of trust has led to the cancellation of high-level meetings and the tacit renunciation of a deal that was meant to put a stop to slander in all official communications.   

Due to the opacity of its political system, North Korea is a notoriously hard nut to crack for South Korean intelligence. The North Korean regime’s intentions and capabilities remain ambiguous, which means that Seoul’s North Korea policies are rarely predicated on a solid understanding of its northern neighbour. South Korean leaders have tried all manner of approaches in the hopes of repairing frayed relations and alleviating the threat from the North.

From 1998 to 2008, presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun implemented the so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which provided quasi-unconditional aid to the North and resulted in increased economic, social and cultural exchanges with North Korea. While tensions were undoubtedly lowered for a time, the Sunshine Policy did not fundamentally alter the security dynamics on the peninsula: Pyongyang did not do away with its military-first policy and kept pursuing the nuclear option, culminating in its first nuclear test in October 2006. The conservative Lee Myung-Bak came to power in 2008 promising to hold Pyongyang accountable and consequently cut nearly all aid to North Korea. While holding the prospect of reconciliation and massive aid if the North Korean regime were to dismantle its nuclear program, Lee’s hard-line approach significantly raised tensions from the outset of his presidency and exacerbated the enmity between the two camps.  

This brings us to the current South Korean president, Park Geun-Hye. Recognizing that the lack of mutual trust is the main obstacle to peace on the Korean peninsula, Park put forward “trustpolitik,” a policy designed to re-establish dialogue and increase cooperation with Pyongyang in order to regain mutual trust. Trustpolitik stands at the crossroads of the Sunshine policy and Lee’s conservatism, as it emphasizes both the need for dialogue and a robust national defense posture. Park’s policy is buttressed by an alignment approach that entails matching Pyongyang’s efforts when it takes steps toward reconciliation and adopting a tough line in the case of provocations. However, trustpolitik is strangely devoid of a clear articulation of what inter-Korean trust would consist of. Rather than making trust the centerpiece of her policy, the South Korean president places the highest value on consistency and reciprocity. Moreover, trustpolitik largely lays the onus for advancement on Pyongyang, thus rendering it impotent when the North Korean regime refuses to budge on the South’s proposals. Nonetheless, despite its flaws, Park’s policy has generally been hailed as a positive step forward after five years of tension under the Lee administration.

The first 15 months of Park Geun-Hye’s tenure have illustrated the limits of her approach. For a moment, in early 2014, there were signs of détente between Seoul and Pyongyang, after a high-level meeting led to reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the first such reunions since 2010. Unfortunately, the warming of ties was short-lived, as inter-Korean relations plummeted once more after the start of the yearly US-South Korea joint military exercises in March. Now, with the resumption of tough talk between Seoul and Pyongyang and a possible fourth nuclear test in the works for the North Korean regime, there seems to be no way out of the current quagmire. Park Geun Hye is currently in waiting mode, her trustpolitik having no answer or providing no way forward.  

One may be forgiven for thinking that empathy and trust are unattainable in the context of two inherently antagonistic countries fighting a zero-sum game for legitimacy. However, this would overlook the fact that highly antagonistic relations have been turned into trusting relations in the past (France and Germany provide a notable example, as do Chile and Argentina more recently). Empathy and trust can only be fostered through regular contact and interaction. Sadly, contacts between Seoul and Pyongyang rarely consist of anything more than one-off series of ad hoc meetings, such as the ones that led to the family reunions and the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Despite their shortcomings and lack of tangible results, the Six-Party denuclearization talks, which until 2008 convened China, the United States, Japan, Russia, and both Koreas, at least provided a forum where relatively sustained interaction could take place.

The prevailing atmosphere on the peninsula and the position of each party do not bode well for a timely resumption of the six-party talks, or any other multilateral gathering for that matter. Nonetheless, one could hope for Park Geun-Hye to stay true to her trust-building plan by making concrete proposals. For instance, partially lifting the so-called May 24 sanctions, imposed in 2010 by her predecessor after the sinking of a South Korean warship, could be a first demonstration of good faith and possibly lead to a breakthrough. China, who has relatively good relations with both Koreas and has long advocated dialogue on the peninsula, could be encouraged to offer its auspices for inter-Korean talks on non-political issues such as joint tourism projects.

Psychologists Roderick M. Kramer and Peter J. Carnevale describe trust-building as a “gradual and long learning process” leading to changes in an actor’s perception of its adversary. Given the likely length of any reconciliation process between the two Koreas, let us hope that leaders in both countries will look beyond immediate political considerations and take steps to ensure a permanent departure from the long-lasting stalemate.

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