Your humble blogger has spent the better part of his trip to Seoul at a conference co-sponsored by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Asia Institute. The topic was "New Strategic Thinking: Planning for Korean Foreign Policy," and I got invited because I edited this a few years ago. I hope that the Korean Foreign Ministry benefitted from it. I certainly learned a few things:
1) No one knows what the f**k the North Koreans are doing. There were representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea on the panels. I talked to a lot of them informally during breaks and meals as well. No one had any clue why Pyongyang had ratcheted up tensions to the extent that they did over the past two months. About the only thing approximating a consensus was the belief that the North Koreans were in fact bluffing about starting outright hostilities -- which makes their behavior all the more puzzling. In triggering the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park, the North Koreans cost themselves about $90 million a year that they can't afford to lose.
2) Chinese academics are getting more interesting. As recently as five years ago, my eyes used to glaze over whenever a Chinese academic started speaking at a policy conference. The reason was that there was a 100 percent certainty that the academic would simply repeat standard PRC boilerplate that didn't deviate from official government positions. An academic agreeing with one's government is not a sin, but only parroting official discourse is pretty friggin' useless.
Something has changed in recent years, however. Maybe I'm being invited to a better class of conferences, but I don't think that's it. Chinese academics are more willing to openly discuss ongoing debates within the Chinese foreign policy community about the wisdom of a certain course of action. At this conference, Qingguo Jia asserted that the Chinese really were rethinking their relationship with North Korea. Now one can debate whether the Standing Politburo is really entertaining such thoughts, but the fact that there's a public conversation about it is pretty interesting.
3) The best-laid foreign policy plans get destroyed by real-world events. The conference was devoted to how the South Korean government could implement Park Geun-Hye's concept of Trustpolitik that she articulated during her campaign for the presidency. The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang. Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis are very high.
It is to Park's credit that she seems to recognize this and has yanked ROK workers from Kaesong as a signal of South Korea's resolve. Trustpolitik is a great phrase, but I'm dubious of whether it will accomplish anything.
4) It's the little things that matter to build mutual goodwill. That's a fancy way of noting the following: if you are a Caucasian academic in South Korea, can use chopsticks proficiently, and actually like kimchee, your South Korean counterparts will treat you like a god.