South Korea's then-president Moon Jae-shaking hands with Kim Yo Jong, the sister and close adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on May 26, 2018. Photo: AFP / The Blue House

SEOUL – Good grief, who would have guessed it, shock surprise! North Korea has turned down South Korea’s offer of game-changing economic aid in return for nuclear disarmament.

Forgive our sarcasm.

In reality, of course, no peninsula watcher is in any way surprised at the latest tired act in the inter-Korean tragedy. Everything about it was depressingly predictable, based on prior depressing experiences.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s offer in an August 15 policy speech of “audacious” amounts of aid in return for progress on North Korean denuclearization echoed similar pledges made by prior Seoul conservative administrations.

Likewise, the North’s rejection thereof, and the South’s subsequent statement of regret, are readings from a very old, well-thumbed playbook.

National leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, in a state-media commentary on Friday called Yoon’s offer of aid “stupid,” adding that he was “simple and childish” for making the offer. “It would have better for his image to shut his mouth,” she said.

More? “We really don’t like Yoon Suk Yeol as a human,” she added.

The South’s response was customarily wishy-washy. “I express deep regret over Kim Yo Jong’s very disrespectful and indecent criticism of our president,” Unification Minister Kwon Young-se told a parliamentary session.

This, alas, is the reality of inter-Korean communication.

With joint South Korea-US exercises – boots-on-ground drills, rather than the computer simulations of recent years – scheduled for this summer amid widespread expectations of more missile tests from the North and possibly another (its seventh) nuclear test, tensions are likely to rise, not fall.   

And as a well-connected source told Asia Times – with intense regret – what the North wants from the South for a reset is virtually impossible for the South to give.

The tragedy behind the headlines

Viewed through a broader prism, the division of Korea, a national tragedy imposed on a weak, unrepresented, non-nation by the great powers in 1945, that led to a murderous, hideous war from 1950-53, is further widened.

The Yoon-Kim exchange may well set the stage for the next five years. For while the reigning Kim Clan is likely to be on the throne in Pyongyang for the foreseeable future, the nascent Yoon administration has a five-year term.  

Absent any reset, this means the bifurcation of the Korean Peninsula will be etched ever more deeply into thick concrete and rusty razor wire. It is a situation that provides endless fodder for politicians, diplomats, generals, arms merchants, pundits – and yes, journalists.  

It is analyses of geopolitical matters – sprinkled with reportage of Pyongyang’s woeful human-rights conditions – that make up the dominant strand of North Kore reportage.

But big-picture analyses mask the ground-zero human tragedy the Demilitarized Zone represents.

The aging members of divided Korean families will continue to suffer from their inability to see loved ones before they pass into the night. At the various lookout points south of the DMZ, the ever-dwindling number of oldsters gazing longingly into the North is notable.

And divided families are only the most prominent victims of a situation in which the citizens of the two nations simply do not talk. Bar troops glaring at each other across the DMZ and officials occasionally meeting behind closed doors in third countries, there is a total lack of any trust-building human interactions.

From a total lack of commerce to tourism to telecommunications to postal services, the chasm of division is widened ever further.

Multiple indications are that the current young generation of South Koreans give little thought to North Korea. And why should they?

Isolated, insulated, with its citizens bereft of the most basic rights and freedoms, North Korea is a very foreign nation.

Granted, South Koreans share a language and a cultural heritage with North Korea. But their daily life experiences are far closer to those of inhabitants of other prosperous democracies – France, Japan, Germany, the UK, the US – than they are to their ethnic brethren.

South Koreans are free to consume widely in the market of products and the marketplaces of ideas; to choose their media and to surf the Internet; to travel wherever they wish at home, and to most places abroad.

They are unfamiliar with poverty or malnutrition, with restrictions on their association or movement. They do not fear the knock on the door at midnight.

The once-sacred flame of “reunification” that inspired Southern activists from the 1980s to the early 2000s – when North Korea’s corroding economy suggested real breakthrough possibilities – is now barely a-glow.

Not only did North Korea not implode, it passed leadership on to the third generation of Kims. The Kim Clan – in flagrantly successful defiance of the international community’s expectations, restrictions and sanctions – armed itself with nuclear weapons, thereby deterring any potential external assault on its monarchy.

Socially, North Korea is by the standards of the Global North a very odd nation indeed. But though it is frequently portrayed as hell, those who spend time are often charmed by the people, who maintain some of the gentilities that South Korea lost in the rush to modernize and globalize.

Indeed, a significant number of the minute percentage of North Koreans who defect to the South find Southern society cold, unfair and harshly competitive. Some end up longing for the simpler associations they led in the North, leading to a handful of re-defections.

The ever-expanding differentials between North and South mean that the likelihood of reunification – never an inevitability – is receding yet further.

What the North wants, the South can’t give

Is there any way forward, beyond applying strategic patience in the forlorn hope that North Korea and the Kims will eventually change their ways?

A person who was familiar with the inter-Korean policies of the previous Moon Jae-in government – which may go down in history as the most engagement-centric Seoul administration ever – offered some prescriptions.

What is clear from his comments is that if South Korea and the world seriously want to get North Korea talking, and feasibly drag it out of isolation, they are going to have to make concessions that many, many persons and bodies will consider unpalatable.

“It was very predictable when Kim Yo Jong made clear that they will not exchange nuclear weapons for economic aid,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is a misunderstanding from the Yoon government if they think they can buy North Korea with economic incentives: North Korea knows very well that unless fundamental issues are resolved, incentives are empty rhetoric.”

From Pyongyang’s perch, the fundamental issues are twofold: “The US hostile policy that threatens North Korea’s survival, and hampers its people’s right to development.” 

To address the regime’s issues, the source divides the required policies into two segments.

To signal an end to “hostile policy,” necessary actions are: the temporary suspension of joint military exercises; non-deployment of US strategic assets to/around South Korea; and some kind of diplomatic normalization between Pyongyang and the US.

To signal North Koreans’ right to economic development, the relaxation of sanctions on the regime is a prerequisite.

But even the source, a noted believer and practitioner of engagement, warns how difficult any such policy package is. Experience shows it cannot work unless all moving pieces are in place.

“The Moon Jae-in government came up with nice proposals,” he conceded. “But it failed to relax sanctions, and so nothing happened.”

And matters may soon get even worse.

The Yoon government has talked up high-risk defense capabilities – capabilities that the ever-shrill,  nuclear-armed Pyongyang balks at. And it has made clear that, unlike prior Seoul governments, it is going to speak up in global fora on human rights and democratic freedoms – dangerous concepts for Pyongyang.

“If the Yoon Suk-yeol government continues to talk of decapitation and pre-emptive strikes and the strengthening of joint exercises and extended deterrence North Korea is unlikely to come back to dialog,” the source said.

“Yoon Suk-yeol has put universal values up front and North Korea regards those as an attempt to undermine the North Korean regime … the push for human rights is seen as hostile policy.”

In the latter area, the source is scathing.

“I think [the] Yoon government has confused itself with the US,” he said. “Even the US government has given itself a hard time by promoting national values and universal values simultaneously.”

A truly “audacious” proposal, the source suggested, would be the unconditional lifting of some sanctions.

Audacious, indeed. For globalized, trade-dependent South Korea, any such move would defy the UN Security Council and much of the international community. Tellingly, it is a move even the Moon government did not make.

So all likelihoods point to a continuation of a status quo ante that has persisted for decades.

Under it, one Korea advanced out of the rubble of war to become a prosperous, free and respected member of the international community. The other  mutated into a poor, dictatorial, feared and misunderstood “rogue state.”

A signal fact of this situation bears repeating: The 77.4 million citizens of these two diametrically different nations were, within living memory, one people.

For the source, the woeful state of inter-Korean relations at this early stage of the Yoon presidency is depressing and worrisome.

“It is a very sad development,” he said. “In fact, it is really horrible.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul.