American Apathy on South Korea-North Korea Relations

“Apathy is scarier than hatred.”

This is a phrase North Korea probably once kept close to its heart. There are 11,506 kilometers (about 7,150 miles) between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang. For a small country with a population of 25 million located in a corner of northeast Asia, America’s attention — be it positive or negative — has always been integral to its survival. When America’s attention on North Korea waned after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, North Korea chose to be a “rogue state” by developing nuclear capability. Hence, North Korea managed to get the attention of America, albeit a trade-off between hatred and apathy.

Recently, America added one more item to its “not-important list”: South Korea-North Korea relations, rapidly advancing since senior official talks on Aug. 25. American news media rushed to report the tension in the Korean Peninsula before the accord was reached. But when it was reached, the related pieces of information just simply ceased to be delivered with any remarkable speed. Never mind the articles dedicated to studying the progress of the tensions and their alleviation; not even the speculative pieces on its future were easy to spot. NBC’s Richard Engel, known for his nickname “the war instigator,” who visited the peninsula during Pyongyang’s second and third nuclear test in 2013, did not go to Korea. It could be because the time it took to resolve this whole situation — the shelling of Yeoncheon [County], South Korea on Aug. 20, the South-North Korea senior official talks on Aug. 23 and the reaching of an accord on Aug. 25 — was rather short.

However, based on assessments by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other American media sources, interpreting this lack of interest in such a way is not a wise thing to do. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal emphasized the fact that North Korea merely expressed “regret” rather than making an apology. The Associated Press offered the peculiar analysis that “both South and North Korea have shown exceptional over-the-edge methods in de-escalating the crisis.”*

And the U.S. remained uninterested in the progress of South-North Korea relations, which came at the cost of an escalation of the crisis. This lack of interest is not limited to the media, either. The U.S. State Department merely repeated its scripted answer that it must watch North Korea’s next move when asked about the future of South-North relations. Frankly, in Washington D.C., North Korea is something of a forgotten matter. There is almost no expert who holds an optimistic view of the North Korean nuclear issue despite progress in South-North relations. There is no change whatsoever in the experts’ analysis, which is best summarized as “not likely [to happen] during the Obama administration.” Just like the myth of Sisyphus, the issue of South-North relations and North Korean nuclear capability remain unresolvable and U.S. fatigue with the issue is at an all-time high.

Ever since the U.S.-DPRK Bilateral Discussions on Feb. 29, 2012 fell through due to Pyongyang’s continuous tests of long-range missiles — along with doubts about the Kim Jung Un regime’s stability — America’s lack of expectations about South-North relations has manifested as apathy. Meanwhile, President Park Geun-hye will be attending China’s parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory in the anti-Japanese war of the Chinese people and the World Anti-Fascist War. Washington’s concern that Seoul will lean more toward Beijing is not entirely baseless speculation. Amidst its speculations, the U.S. is becoming more convinced that such simultaneous progress on the Korea-U.S. alliance and Korea-China relations is a dangerous game. During a meeting with his American counterpart on Aug. 31, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byong Se emphasized China’s role as leverage in the problems with North Korea. Still, this doesn’t appear to be enough to convince America to give up its pessimistic view on the North Korean situation. Facing this difficulty, can President Park, who will be visiting the U.S. in October, get the attention and cooperation of President Obama who only has a year and four months left in office? It will only be possible if she can assure that the Korea-U.S. alliance is the basis of the Park administration’s diplomatic agenda that is an entirely separate matter from Seoul’s ongoing attempts to improve its relations with China. In addition, she will also have to make the case that South-North relations are not entirely lost yet. And President Park has until Oct. 16, a month and a half, to prepare for all of this.

*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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