Know­ing what is and isn’t nor­mal is key for North and South Korea


Of the many ad­jec­tives used to de­scribe the sin­gu­lar na­ture of North and South Korean re­la­tions, “nor­mal” is one that rarely, if ever, crops up.

The com­plex, volatile and some­times quite sur­real geopol­i­tics of the di­vided Korean penin­sula are very far from or­di­nary, sub­ject to wild mood swings be­tween two coun­tries that have tech­ni­cally been at war for the past 60 years.

But judg­ing what is or is not nor­mal in the in­ter-Korean con­text looks set to be­come an is­sue of sig­nif­i­cant diplo­matic im­por­tance in the wake of an agree­ment the two sides reached this week that pulled them back from the brink of an armed con­flict.

Un­der the terms, Seoul switched off loud­speak­ers blast­ing pro­pa­ganda mes­sages across the bor­der af­ter the North ex­pressed re­gret over re­cent mine blasts that maimed two South Korean sol­diers.

With the South push­ing for a North Korean un­der­tak­ing to avoid acts of provo­ca­tion in the fu­ture, both sides set­tled for a for­mula stat­ing the loud­speak­ers would re­main un­plugged “un­less an ab­nor­mal case oc­curs.”

“Ab­nor­mal” is a vague, ab­stract term to use in any diplo­matic con­text, but us­ing it in ref­er­ence to as­pects of North-South re­la­tions seems al­most per­versely mean­ing­less.

‘Noth­ing is re­ally nor­mal’

“Noth­ing is re­ally nor­mal in this con­text. It would be ab­nor­mal if they had a nor­mal re­la­tion­ship,” said John Delury, a pro­fes­sor of history at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul who spe­cial­izes in main­land China and North Korea.

The two Koreas can

barely agree on any­thing, so there would seem lit­tle or no hope of a con­sen­sus on what kind of act may be con­sid­ered to have crossed the line into ab­nor­mal­ity as ref­er­enced by the agree­ment.

And South Korean of­fi­cials clearly aren’t of­fer­ing to clar­ify, even from a uni­lat­eral per­spec­tive.

Ap­pear­ing be­fore a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day, De­fense Min­is­ter Han Min-goo was ques­tioned as to what the gov­ern­ment would deem to be an ab­nor­mal case.

“In­stead of defin­ing any spe­cific case as ab­nor­mal now, I think we would seek to ap­ply the term when a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion arises,” Han replied.

While the “ab­nor­mal” clause in the agree­ment may — like the com­ments of min­is­ters — be will­fully im­pre­cise, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily fol­low that it is im­prac­ti­cal or tooth­less.

Seoul was well aware that Py­ongyang was never go­ing to make any spe­cific pledge to avoid provo­ca­tion, but it wanted some term of ref­er­ence that might be used as a stick down the line.

Putting Down a Marker

“This is what they had to do,” Delury said. “Get some­thing in there that puts a marker down. It may be vaguely worded, but it’s some­thing they can in­voke,” he added.

And while the “ab­nor­mal” la­bel may be open to mul­ti­ple def­i­ni­tions and in­ter­pre­ta­tions, if in­voked by the South in the fu­ture, at least one mean­ing will now be quite clear.

“Es­sen­tially it be­comes a piece of short­hand,” said Paik Hak-soon, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for North Korean Stud­ies at the Se­jong In­sti­tute.

“South Korea can use

it as a warn­ing that it will switch the loud­speak­ers on again, with­out hav­ing to make that threat ex­plicit. That’s an ef­fec­tive tool,” Paik said.

But a tool that will blunt quickly if over-used — a real temp­ta­tion given North Korea’s pro­cliv­ity for provoca­tive be­hav­ior.

“They will have to use spar­ingly,” said Delury.

“Be­cause there will be ab­nor­mal­i­ties — we are swimming in ab­nor­mal­i­ties — and if the South in­vokes it ev­ery time, it swiftly loses value,” he added.

Other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have sug­gested it would be re­served for sit­u­a­tions where lives have ac­tu­ally been taken or di­rectly threat­ened.

The fo­cus, in that case, would seem to be on bor­der in­ci­dents, rather than grand­stand­ing events like rocket launches or nu­clear tests, which would be open to cen­sure any­way as vi­o­la­tions of United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions.

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The Uses of Im­pre­ci­sion

Choi Kang, vice pres­i­dent of the Asan In­sti­tute think-tank in Seoul, said def­i­ni­tions were be­side the point.

“In­ter- Korean re­la­tions are pretty ab­nor­mal any­way. We find it hard to agree, so im­pre­ci­sion or ab­strac­tion can ac­tu­ally be use­ful in over­com­ing dif­fer­ences,” Choi said.

It is pre­cisely be­cause “ab­nor­mal” is such a sub­jec­tive term, and so open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, that it was al­lowed to stand in the fi­nal agree­ment.

“It can be spun many ways, but be­tween us, be­tween the Koreas, I think there is a tacit un­der­stand­ing of what would be judged ‘ab­nor­mal’ and that’s im­por­tant,” Choi said.

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