After 40-plus-hours of talks at the border village of Panmunjom, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed on Tuesday to defuse tensions by withdrawing the highest-alert orders to their troops.

In a joint statement, Pyongyang expressed regret over the landmine blasts in the southern section of the demilitarized zone on Aug 4 that maimed two ROK soldiers on patrol, while Seoul stopped its loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the border from Tuesday noon.

Tensions rose as well as eased fast this time, because neither side wanted a war. Given their joint efforts to maintain calm on the Korean Peninsula even during the two major flare-ups in 1993 and 2002, it is clear that Seoul and Pyongyang want to defuse the situation rather than worsening their relationship.

Yet the six-point agreement reached on Tuesday is a temporary compromise, because it is aimed at defusing the immediate crisis. The two sides agreed to hold a working-level Red Cross meeting early next month to facilitate the reunion of families that were separated by the Korean War (1950-53) and to hold an inter-governmental dialogue as soon as possible.

Since taking office in 2013, ROK President Park Geun-hye has been struggling to fulfill her promise of rebuilding inter-Korean trust, because the two sides are yet to reach an agreement on resuming bilateral talks. In this sense, Seoul’s propaganda broadcasts along the border, the first in 11 years, might be a tactic to pressure Pyongyang into agreeing to high-level talks. It also seemed to have helped seal the latest deal.

Still, the root cause of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is the lack of trust between the two sides, which has made the DPRK feel insecure.

The widening power gap between Seoul and Pyongyang, Park’s flexible diplomacy and the DPRK’s continued isolation from the international community have significantly diminished their mutual trust.

As a relatively weak player in regional affairs, Pyongyang is concerned about its political legitimacy should the reunification come about. That explains why it has been avoiding contact with Seoul. If DPRK leader Kim Jong-un still refuses to communicate with his ROK counterpart, the inter-governmental dialogue is unlikely to take place as agreed.

But if Park can set aside her grand reunification plan and start making more concrete efforts to improve mutual trust during the rest of her tenure, it is likely that Kim will return the favor.

So, the Tuesday agreement between Pyongyang and Seoul should be seen as the start of a comprehensive reconciliation, because both sides have shown their willingness to improve bilateral ties and, by default, the regional and global situations.

In a rare gesture that signaled “peaceful coexistence, the DPRK’s KCNA news agency referred to the ROK by its official name, “the Republic of Korea”, while the ROK reiterated its stance on crisis management. This suggests the two sides can avoid such crises in the future if they jointly formulate and follow a code of conduct for bilateral interactions.

The author is an associate professor at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 08/29/2015 page5)