SEOUL — When you have an alcoholic in the family, South Korean President Park Geun-hye recently told advisers, you can hide all the bottles and take him to rehab. But you can’t make him quit until he is ready to quit.
Here, the alcoholic in the family is Kim Jong Un.
With this week’s agreement to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Park is trying to help her North Korean counterpart beat what analysts describe as his addiction to an endless cycle of behaving badly, then insisting on being rewarded to stop — whether with heavy fuel oil from the United States during past nuclear talks or truckloads of rice and fertilizer from his estranged cousins to the south.
“North Korea’s provocations have become bolder because the world is used to their belligerence, so they need to create higher tensions to get more attention,” said Lim Eul-chul, director of research at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “It’s like your body becoming more tolerant to the same dose of medicine.”
For that reason, South Korea needs to try to break the chain of provocation and agreement, Lim said.
At first glance, the deal reached in the early hours of Tuesday after three days of marathon talks would appear to do that.
After several weeks of steadily increasing tensions, which included North Korean forces being moved into combat-ready positions, Pyongyang expressed “regret” for a land mine attack that seriously injured two South Korean soldiers this month.
In return, Seoul switched off speakers on the border that had been blaring messages into the North calling Kim’s regime “incompetent,” although it did not dismantle the speakers as originally demanded. The South said it would not resume the broadcasts “unless an abnormal case occurs.”
But North Korea did not get any of the material inducements that usually accompany such deals, and it did not ask for any, a senior government official said Wednesday on the customary condition of anonymity.
Seoul did, however, signal that it was open to lifting sanctions imposed on the North after the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. Pyongyang has refused to admit responsibility or to apologize for that attack.
Those sanctions are “an issue that could totally be handled through dialogue” during talks resulting from this week’s deal, Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, told reporters Wednesday.
All inter-Korean trade and aid projects other than humanitarian assistance have been suspended because of the sanctions, sharply curtailing the economic links between the neighbors.
On both sides, an effort is now underway to spin the deal in their favor.
A briefing Wednesday for foreign reporters in Seoul felt like a grammar lesson — the agreement was meaningful, the government official said, because the sentences had subjects and objects. Previously, it was not clear that North Korea was expressing regret to South Korea, he said.
Never mind that Pyongyang merely expressed regret, rather than issuing the apology that the South had demanded. “We believe that the North Korean side made an acknowledgment and an apology for the recent provocations,” he said.
In North Korea, the deal was being explained in a rather different way.
“The South must have learned a serious lesson that it will bring an armed clash if it creates a groundless case and provokes the other side,” Hwang Pyong So, director of the general political bureau of the North Korean army and one of the two Northern representatives at the talks, said on the North’s Korean Central Television.
The real question is what happens next. Can Park maintain what she calls her “firm principles” and continue with her policy of “trustpolitik,” and can North Korea break its addiction to reward for bad behavior?
Analysts expect the next month at least to be quiet. The two sides have agreed to hold another round of reunions, at the end of September, for families separated during the Korean War.
But what happens in October is anyone’s guess.
When more substantive discussions on generally improving relations convene, analysts here say North Korea is likely to present its usual shopping list of things it needs to continue the talks.
In addition, North Korea on Oct. 10 will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of its ruling communist Workers’ Party. Many analysts expect Pyongyang to mark the occasion with a show of military might, perhaps even by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Seoul is declining to say whether that would constitute an “abnormal” provocation. “Long-range rockets are always a provocation, but whether this is a normal or abnormal situation, this is something we should consider in the context of the time,” the senior government official said.
There has been at least one immediate winner: Park. The deal, reached at the half-way point of her five-year term, could hardly have come at a better moment for the president, who has appeared to lurch from crisis to crisis and has not been able to establish any sort of legacy.
“She has shown she can be firm with North Korea,” said Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “I think she managed the whole situation well, and public opinion has been very supportive.”
Inter-Korean relations are now at their best since Park’s conservative predecessor took office more than seven years ago, and South Koreans feel better for it.
Park’s approval ratings have risen above 40 percent for the first time in months. Six out of 10 South Koreans surveyed by Realmeter, a pollster, said this week that they support the deal.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.