Trustpolitik vs. Distrustpolitik: Down and Out on the Korean Peninsula

After decades of tensions and stalemate, Trustpolitik, a  fresh approach by South Korean President Park Geun-hye towards North Korea, indicates why it is so difficult to build anything resembling a stable relationship between these troubled neighbors. Through Trustpolitik, Park has sought to avoid the excesses and naïveté of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” – which aimed to induce the Kim family’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the table through almost unconditional economic cooperation and aid.

But even President Park’s approach imagines too much sunshine in North Korea.  The distrust between North and South Korea, rooted in their antithetical political systems, cannot be erased.  This distrust has produced one war that has resulted in the death of millions, mostly Koreans, but also troops from the People’s Republic of China, the United States and member nations of the United Nations Command.  It has also produced an armistice that has served as the setting for a 60-year military standoff for, countless provocations, North Korea’s development into a de facto nuclear state, and countless failed attempts at reconciliation.

North Korea remains a family cult-centered dictatorship with the world’s fourth largest military, a poorly-fed populace isolated from the rest of the world, a failed economy, and the ignominious title of the world’s 23rd most failed state, The Republic of Korea in the South, has become an ultra-modern, full-fledged democracy with the world’s 15th largest economy and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) ranking as the world’s 6th most-wired country.

In the 41 years since the first inter-Korean talks of July 4, 1972, there have been 606 meetings between the North and the South.  These meetings have produced small results and great disappointments.  The July 4th 1972 Joint Declaration, supported by the leadership of the North’s Kim Il-sung and the South’s Pak Chong-hui, was significant in that it was the first official negotiations between the North and South. . In 1991, the North and South held several meetings to produce the “Basic Agreement,” signed in 1992, but never implemented the agreement due to the North’s pursuit of nuclear technology. The agreement would have established a security “holding pattern” while the North figured out how to deal with its security and economic problems in the context of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the most significant development of these meetings was more meetings: two summits between the North’s Kim Jong-il  and two South Korean heads-of-state –  Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The first summit, in 2000, produced the June 15 Declaration that stated the two Koreas’ determination to solve Korean reunification without outside interference.

All of these meetings have produced family reunions, billions of dollars of the South’s aid to the North, and on-again, off-again economic cooperation.  Yet, as we approach the 60th Anniversary of the Armistice Agreement on 27 July, military confrontation remains the dominant reality on the Korean Peninsula.  American troops remain after six decades of failed reconciliation, nuclear threats, and frequently deadly provocation.  The bottom line is that the biggest disappointment, particularly to North and South Koreans, is that there has been no progress whatsoever toward reconciliation and unification.

Why is it that, over 600 meetings later, the two Koreas have so little to show for their attempts at cooperation? A partial explanation may lie in the diametric opposition between the South Korean political ethos, which is based at least in part on trust and eventual reunification of the Koreas, and the political system in North Korea, which is explicitly based on distrust. This curious juxtaposition has made it difficult for the two nations to move beyond a stalemate.

Now, a new leader in the South must establish a format for dealing with the North in the face of constant threats. President Park’s Trustpolitik is designed to deal with the North realistically, rather than adopting the assumption of past administrations that the South’s generosity will eventually convince the North to cooperate and reduce tensions.  What most of the world does not realize, however, is that Trustpolitik is not simply a policy for dealing with the Kim family regime in the North – it is in fact the law of the land in South Korea.  Unification policy holds a significant place in South Korean law – so much so that it is addressed in the 1987 Constitution immediately after the three concepts of democracy, nationality and territory, all integral parts of the Korean socio-political psyche.  Article IV of the Constitution states unequivocally that unification must be addressed by the state and, as the President, Madame Park must have a unification policy.

But this is of no consequence in North Korea, where the political system is explicitly opposed to the sort of trust-building Ms. Park might have in mind.  The North’s own constitution merely serves as window-dressing for the outside world.  It is not taught in North Korean schools, is not available in libraries, nor is it viewable by North Koreans on the internet, which is non-existent in North Korea. It is the Korean Workers’ Party Charter that guides socio-political activity for all North Koreans and the charter specifically states that the party belongs to the Supreme Leader. But higher than that is the Ten Great Principles of Unitary Ideology.  These principles, expanded into 65 directives, inform each North Korean how they are to live by respecting the Supreme Leader.  It is a code that cements in the minds of every North Korean who is boss in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Violations of this code are addressed far more swiftly by the North’s security agencies than standard laws of addressing criminality.  The code exists because the Supreme Leader does not trust North Koreans in their loyalty to him.  The point is to teach every North Korean how to be loyal in a society where trust does not exist.  Every North Korean must be cautious in every word and deed.  Even North Korea’s highest ranking defector, Hwang Jang-yeop, ranked 22nd in the party hierarchy before defecting via China in 1997, has told many audiences that he had to instruct his 5-year-old granddaughter on North Korean political correctness, particularly on what not to say, based on the Ten Great Principles. Thus, the law of the land to the North is the word of the Supreme Leader.  He adjudicates as he will, without restraint, and based in his own values.  And those values do not contain trust.

North Korea’s Supreme leaders – there have been three of them in the Kim Family Regime with Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and now the grandson Kim Jong-un – have built a society on distrust.  The government politically classifies at the age of 17 every North Korean’s level of loyalty to the Supreme Leader – loyal, wavering, or disloyal.  The latter are literally referred to as the enemy and impure elements. Let’s state that again:  a significant proportion of North Korean citizens are so distrusted by the Supreme Leader that they are officially – through party policy – enemies of the state.

But “disloyal” citizens are not the only ones distrusted by the Supreme Leader.  Even those who are most supportive of the regime, members of the party’s Central Committee who can be regarded as the Kim Regime elite, are watched and monitored extensively by the security agencies.  And this, too, is done at the direction of the party.

The core of the regime-sanctioned distrust are the security agencies, which are extremely powerful in North Korea.  They create political terror and plenty of it.  They are the regime’s most important tool of survival.  These agencies report directly to the Supreme Leader, with their primary mission being to protect the regime security’s from internal challenges.  No one is to be trusted and everybody is to be watched.  The State Security Department, North Korea’s version of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, maintains offices in all social, economic and administrative units in North Korea. It is tasked with detecting and arresting any person guilty of disloyalty – perceived or real – to the Supreme Leader.  Its sister agency, the Military Security Command, performs the same mission within the Korean People’s Army.  The Ministry of Public Security, or the national police, is grossly misnamed because it is not the public whose security with which they are concerned – it is the Supreme Leader’s.  The North’s People’s Safety Enforcement Law that guides police functions, states that the purpose of the police is “observing systems and maintaining order.” In other words, their purpose is to secure the regime and the Supreme Leader. Not surprisingly, these agencies also monitor each other. Finally, the courts – judges, prosecutors, and lawyers – work for the Supreme Leader and enforce the Ten Great Principles far more than civil law.

Distrust is so deeply embedded in the Kim Regime that concepts such as positive values, human rights, and trust itself have no place in the regime’s conduct, nor in its policy-making.  That not only includes domestic policy, but foreign and military policy as well.  South Korea’s Trustpolitik stands in direct contravention to the North’s entire political concept. South North negotiations to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, now in its fifth session, are just the latest example of the North’s distrust of the South.  Despite South Korea’s good intentions, it should expect to be treated no better than the North’s own citizens.

On the 60th Anniversary of the Armistice Agreement, the Republic of Korea-United States alliance sees itself locked in a security dilemma.  History has proven that confidence-building measures have never worked on the Korean Peninsula.  This is because confidence-building itself requires trust – the kind President Park is looking for, but that the North cannot provide.,  For instance, the DPRK cannot tolerate monitors inside its military, nuclear or missile hierarchies, which would be a key maneuver to build confidence vis-à-vis the South.

Pyongyang’s barriers to trust are higher than ever  as demonstrated by its thermonuclear threats to the United States and President Obama, greater ruthlessness in dealing with North Korean refugees crossing into China and numerous purges of ranking regime elite, to name a few.  So too is the Armistice Agreement as important as it was 60 years ago in maintaining the security of the people of South Korea.  Though the North disavows the Armistice Agreement, it has demonstrated a healthy respect for the military might of the Alliance and generally, outside provocations, abides by the separation of forces aspects of the Armistice.  There is one thing the North can trust:  the Alliance will defend the South, at great sacrifice to the Kim Regime.

Robert M. Collins served 31 years in various positions with the U.S. military in Korea. He is the author of Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System, published by the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Washington, DC.


Photo Credit: Taylor Sloan