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Asia

Inter-Korean ties - A swinging pendulum

After agreeing to reopen the joint Kaesong industrial complex and to talk on reuniting families separated by the war, North and South Korea seem to be improving ties. But experts warn that appearances can be deceptive.

As recently as April, there was genuine concern that the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, stoked by the bellicose rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang, might deteriorate into a military skirmish or - in a worst-case scenario - something more serious.

After all, the Supreme Command of the North Korean government announced on March 26 that it had elevated its artillery and strategic missile forces to "combat-ready posture" and said it was prepared to strike targets in South Korea, Japan, Guam, Hawaii and the continental US.

Today, however, the two Koreas appear to have finally buried the hatchet and are moving ahead to a more cooperative and collaborative future. But experts warn Pyongyang has seen this sort of rapprochement before, only to have it deliberately derailed.

"It is not the first time this has happened," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, commenting on the detente that has apparently broken out on the peninsula.

Between friendship and conflict

The pendulum has swung between friendship and conflict numerous times over the last three decades, Pinkston points out, with North Korean agents attempting in 1983 to assassinate the South Korean president, Chun Doo-hwan, during a state visit to Burma. Less than two years later, Pyongyang was sending aid through the Red Cross to victims of severe flooding in the South.

In June 1999, relations took a new turn for the worse when North Korea attempted to redraw the sea border off the western coast of the peninsula, leading to five days of naval battles that ended in one North Korean torpedo boat sunk, five other vessels damaged and as many as 30 killed.

North Korean Chung Ki-Hyung (L) meets his South Korean sister during a family reunion after being separated for 60 years on October 30, 2010 in Mount Kumgang, North Korea. Red Cross officials from the two Koreas exchanged lists of families to be reunited - 100 names each - at a checkpoint in the border town of Kaesong in North Korea. (Photo by Kim Ho-Young-Korea Pool/Getty Images)

North and south Korea agreed to hold talks on reuniting families separated

On the South Korean side, two warships were damaged and nine military personnel were injured. One year later, the first Inter-Korean Summit was held in Pyongyang and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung later received the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two nations together.

However, in June 2002, the two sides were back to confrontation with another sea battle off Yeonpyeong Island, with 13 North Korean sailors killed and four servicemen from the South dying.

No breakthrough expected

Just recently, both parties scheduled talks for Friday, August 23, on Seoul's proposal to arrange reunions of families who have been separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953; a development that could be a major breakthrough in bilateral ties as the last reunions took place in 2010. Progress has also been made on discussions to reopen the Kaesong industrial park, and Pyongyang has been pushing for tours of the Mount Kumgang tourist area to restart.

However, Pinkston doesn't rule out that the upcoming talks may be followed by yet another confrontation. "North Korea could very easily decide to pull out of these negotiations by putting forward some unreasonable demand that would make it impossible for the South to agree to," he told DW.

KAESONG, NORTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) Kim Ki-Woong (L), the head of South Korea's working-level delegation shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Chol-Su (R) during their meeting at Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee on August 14, 2013 in Kaesong, North Korea. North Korea withdrew over 50,000 of its staff from the factories owned by Seoul in April of this year, and South Korea removed managers in May, during the height of tensions between the two nations. (Photo by Lee Seung-Hwan-Korea Pool/Getty Images)

Ties between the two Koreas have swung between friendship and confrontation

The view is underscored by statements made by South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae. The minister recently played down expectations of any imminent breakthrough in bilateral ties, saying: "There is no quick solution to a lot of pending issues. We will have to solve them gradually, step by step.

Pinkston argues that tactically, the North Koreans implement different measures to reach their aims, "Sometimes they resort to a demonstration of strength and at other times they offer dialogue and a conciliatory approach." This is why the analyst warns that Pyongyang could return to a more aggressive approach if it feels it's not reaching its goals.

There are plenty of reasons not to be overly optimistic about an imminent turnaround in inter-Korean relations. South Korea has hosted two days of hearings this week with defectors and escapees from the North's notorious gulag system as part of a United Nations' investigation into human rights abuses.

Similarly, the United States and South Korea are conducting joint military drills involving 80,000 troops, designed to defend the South against an attack from the North. Pyongyang traditionally feels provoked by the drills which it describes as an "extreme threat."

During a recent National Security Council meeting to start the exercise, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said: "Preparing for national contingencies is the most essential part for national security and the safety of the people. We cannot be negligent on that even for a moment."

Warnings from the North

North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea reacted to Park's comments, saying that if Seoul continues to seek confrontation, then relations between the two nations will inevitably suffer and could reach "the point of no return."

North Korea is similarly insistent that Seoul only returned to the negotiating table on the issues of family reunions, Kaesong and Mount Kumgang "to deflect public opinion from political scandals in the South."

Kim Myong-chol, director of the Center for Korean-American Peace, told DW that the government in Seoul is only "enthusiastic" about the talks because it is "facing a crisis over the CIA's involvement in South Korean domestic politics and every day tens of thousands of people are protesting in Seoul, although the media do not report it," he stated.

However, the analyst remains optimistic."Pyongyang is ready to talk and within the next two years I expect to see progress in our relations," he said. "The first aim is for a new North-South summit. After that the signing of a peace treaty could follow."