Prolonged setback on NK
While the rival political parties are rushing frantically to prepare for the general elections for the National Assembly slated for April, undertaking competing reforms and outpouring innovative policy platforms, including more proactive approaches to the North, the Lee government is stuck in a setback on North Korea after exhausting its ``flexible measures.”
In short, Seoul is back in the waiting mode ― waiting for an unlikely positive response from the new leadership in Pyongyang to its offer of ``a window of opportunity” to ``free the North from isolation and improve its economy.” In theory, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court to decide whether to grab the opportunity to engage the South in dialogue and make progress on denuclearization.
One and a half months since the power transition in Pyongyang, the Obama administration’s position on the North remains the same, as there has been no change in Pyongyang’s attitudes toward Seoul and Washington. North Korea is hardly mentioned in the Republican presidential primaries, and it has little priority in the Obama’s reelection strategy.
Last week, Pyongyang issued ``an open letter of questions” in the name of the National Defense Commission’s Policy Bureau to reject Seoul’s call for the resumption of talks. On Dec. 30, 2011, following Kim Jong-il’s funeral, the National Defense Commission reiterated its position ``not to deal with the Lee regime.”
Through the open questionnaire, the North imposed new demands for the South to meet: (1) ``apologize for its interference with condolences” on the death of Kim Jong-il; (2) drop the issues of the ship Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong shelling as a condition to improved inter-Korean relations; (3) implement the two summit declarations of June 15, 2000 and Oct. 4, 2007; (4) abolish the National Security Law; and (5) suspend combined U.S.-ROK military drills.
Pyongyang’s latest rhetorical offensive might aim at shifting the blame to the South for the absence of inter-Korean dialogue at a time when many view the last four years of Lee’s signature policy of ``denuclearization and opening 3000” as a spectacular failure. Even if the North should be held responsible for the current state of strained inter-Korean relations ― first with the shooting of a South Korean tourist woman at Mt. Geumgang in July 2008, and then with the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, the Lee government’s policy is still partly responsible for failing to make any progress on denuclearization or North-South relations.
Assuming the post of unification minister last fall, Minister Yu Woo-ik said he would be flexible on North Korea, although he would not scrap the principles ― which refer to denuclearization to be followed by opening and economic cooperation and eventual democratic unification. Yu’s ministry eased restrictions on civilian contacts with the North, thus allowing private organizations to visit the North and to provide humanitarian assistance, which Pyongyang gladly accepted, but not without suspecting Seoul’s motivation.
Through these ``flexible measures,” Minister Yu had hoped that the North Koreans respond to the South’s renewed call for ``establishment of an official channel of dialogue.” Pyongyang questioned Seoul’s ``sincerity,” just as Seoul and Washington had jointly demanded the ``sincerity” of North Korea’s intent to denuclearize.
Frustrated by the absence of Pyongyang’s response, Minister Yu sought advice from a number of experienced experts, including some former unification ministers who worked under the previous administrations. The advice for him varies depending on the ideological inclinations of the expert. Some felt uneasy about his flexibility and others felt that he was not flexible enough.
The options available include (1) reopening of the tourist project at Mt. Geumgang, (2) sending a high-level envoy to Pyongyang, (3) resuming a provision of massive food and fertilizer aid to the North, (4) suspending or reducing the scales of the Key Resolve and other ROK-U.S. military exercises, and (5) inviting Kim Jong-un to the nuclear security summit that Seoul will host later in March.
Apparently, the unification minister is not in a position to consider any of these options before the North moves forward first. The minister has told one of his predecessors that he wants to turn over an improved state of inter-Korean relations to the next regime of South Korea, whoever may capture it so that the next government would not have to start from scratch.
Such thinking may originate from a political consideration to alleviate the baggage of the ruling party for the failed policy of the Lee government, from which it distances itself for electoral politics. Minister Yu and others think the new leadership of the North may have ``an internal reason” to take time before it firms up its response to Seoul’s waiting strategy. However, there is no evidence to support this assumption.
On the other hand, we know there are several veteran experts who advise the inexperienced Kim Jong-un in dealing with Seoul and Washington. They should include Kim Yang-gun and Lee Jong-hyuk who know more about the South than the South Korean experts know about the North, and Kang Suk-ju and Kim Gye-gwan who know more about the United States than the American specialists know about the North.
Since the South is unwilling to show any further flexibility and since the North would likely wait for a new administration in the South, no dramatic development in inter-Korea relations is expected during this election year. We also know that the North Koreans are consistent in their fundamental policy, while able to adapt to the changing situation that affects their interest. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.