The CSS Blog Network

A Dead End? The Northern Limit Line and the Future of Inter-Korean Relations

Image by Jon Pavelka/Flickr.

Following her election as South Korea’s first female president on December 19, 2012, Park Geun-hye identified North Korea as one of the main challenges facing her administration. Her approach to relations with the North will likely be different from her predecessors as she seeks a middle ground between Lee Myung-bak’s principled engagement and the unconditional engagement of the Sunshine Policy era. In particular, Park has spoken extensively about the need to establish a trust-based relationship with North Korea. Her success in establishing a trust-based approach will, in part, depend upon the effective management of issues relating to the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime boundary between the two Koreas in the West Sea. However, Park’s diplomatic efforts are likely to be compromised by Pyongyang’s continued refusal to recognize the NLL. And while this dispute requires an urgent solution, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement over how to define the sea boundary between North and South Korea is likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.

But why has this issue been so difficult to resolve? One of the main difficulties has been in how to best approach management of the NLL. Toward the end of his term in office, President Roh Moo-hyun sought to address the NLL issue when he visited North Korea as part of the second inter-Korean Summit. President Roh proposed a “West Sea Peace and Cooperation Special Zone” that would allow free access for fishing vessels from both Koreas and the development of a special economic zone in the North Korean port of Haeju. But while the proposal was identified in the Joint Agreement at the end of the summit, no concrete procedures were established and follow-up discussions failed. One of the major sticking points was Pyongyang’s insistence that waters south of the NLL fell under North Korean territory.

Creating a neutral joint fishing zone also raises some genuine security concerns over how to defend the five Northwest Islands that the NLL seeks to protect. In recent years, security along the NLL has been complicated by the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Since these incidents both sides have been building up their military capacities with the South turning the islands into fortresses and North Korea constructing a new hovercraft base that would allow them to mount a quick attack. Accordingly, any new effort to resolve the NLL issue must first consider how to resolve security concerns before addressing access to fishing locations.

Park Geun-hye’s trust-building initiatives are also likely to emphasize respect for previous agreements between Seoul and Pyongyang, enhanced economic cooperation, social exchanges and the establishment of a regular channel for dialogue. Yet she has also committed herself to defending against North Korea’s attempts to neutralize the NLL based on the belief that provocations by Pyongyang will heighten tensions and disrupt the realization of trustpolitik on the Korean Peninsula. This would mean that any new approach could easily be shot down if Kim Jong-un was to make removal of the NLL as a precondition for talks. Such an outcome is possible when considering the difficult internal dynamics in North Korea related to Kim Jong-un’s succession.

While there is no direct threat to Kim’s leadership, his regime is currently undergoing a sensitive period of adjustment. In the past year there has been a shakeup of the military and security leadership as Kim Jong-un seeks to form a ruling elite dependent upon him and not one made up of his father’s people. A notable example in this regard is that the four senior military figures who accompanied Kim Jong-un during his father’s funeral have all been removed or demoted. Until Kim Jong-un has fully settled on who will make up his regime, reaching a groundbreaking agreement with the South will be a lesser priority. Accordingly, using the NLL as a precondition for talks in order to stall for time is a possible outcome.

To demonstrate this point, Kim Jong-un recently struck a conciliatory note in his 2013 New Year’s Day speech when he identified the need to improve inter-Korean relations. However, the following day the National Defense Commission – the highest security body which Kim leads – released a statement criticizing South Korea over its position on the NLL. In blunt language, it threatens “sacred war” if Seoul continues with the policies of the Lee administration. Basically, these tough words are aimed at Park Geun-hye, warning her to steer clear of following in the footsteps of her predecessor. The statement is also evidence of how bad inter-Korean relations have become over the last five years and that it will take some time to rebuild trust. North Korea, due to its succession troubles, has done much to damage relations and will have to make bold gestures to undo its past provocations. South Korea, for its part too, will have to reassure the North that it does not have hostile intentions.

The NLL will be the real testing ground for both sides’ intent. Given the difficulties in resolving the NLL issue, it is crucial that Pyongyang and Seoul depoliticize the dispute if there is to be any progress in inter-Korean relations over the next five years. This means that both sides must avoid raising the issue as a precondition for future talks. If this can be achieved, the next stage will require confidence-building measures to enhance trust and help avoid confrontation. One possible way to avoid future misunderstandings and conflict over the NLL would be to establish a hotline between the two regional naval commands. While a hotline is only as good as the other side picking up the phone and responding, it would nonetheless be a step in the right direction. Using the hotline to coordinate joint efforts by the North and South Korean navies to disrupt illegal Chinese fishing would be one way to initiate trust-building.

Getting to that point requires patience as the most immediate obstacle to engagement efforts is the continuing domestic political dynamics in North Korea. While Seoul must play a waiting game to some extent, it should keep a keen watch on which elites and institutions will be forming the base of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Once the succession process becomes more stabilized, South Korea should take the initiative and begin to reach out. If Kim’s words in his New Year Day speech are genuine, 2013 could be a new chapter in inter-Korean relations.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
The North Korean Nuclear Issue: Between Containment and Dialogue
China’s Post-Cheonan and -Yeonpyeong Policy toward North Korea
Predictions on Power Structure and Policy Changes of the Kim Jong-un Regime


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.