Truth of secret contacts
Regarding the Beijing secret contacts between the North and the South that took place since May 9 this year, both sides are claiming different versions of what had transpired in those talks. This latest episode of controversy involves two factual questions. Did the South ``beg” for a summit? Did it try to bribe the North side with cash for it? Then there is a broader question of its impact on the prospects of inter-Korean relations.
The North Korean disclosure of this incident on June 1 seems to have ended the North’s interest in dealing with the government of President Lee Myung-bak, who still has one and a half years in office. The breakdown of talks also creates a serious obstacle to the resumption of the six-party talks. South Korea worked hard to win the support of the United States and China for its initiative in ``a three-stage formula” to revive the six-party talks. In the first stage, inter-Korean talks would be held, followed by the second stage of U.S.-North Korea talks in advance of reconvening the six-party talks.
The reasons behind the North’s abrupt switch from an active gesture of dialogue with the South since last January to a hostile attitude of confrontation in June could be numerous and complicated. They may include the South Korean military’s use of the portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un as targets for firing practice, the South’s persistent demand for an apology concerning the frigate Cheonan, and the North’s improved economic relations with China. There is speculation of some internal problems in Pyongyang but no evidence supports this. The North has been shifting back and forth between the tactics of engagement and confrontation. It would take new action from the South to influence the North’s tactics again.
It may be worthwhile to examine what Kim Jong-il said on his visit to China during the last week of May. He said, ``We have made sincere efforts to improve relations with the South,” in the present perfect tense. In other words, he may have meant to say, ``We have tried but failed to….” He did not say what he would do after that point. Maybe Kim had by then made his decision not to deal with the South any longer, which was announced a few days later.
It is not the first time that the North and South exchange claims and counterclaims in the midst of a strained relationship. The North Koreans often make provocative and threatening statements regarding their future course of action against the South (but thank God, not all of them are carried out, and some are discounted as a bluff.) However, when they issue official statements regarding their roles in the past negotiations, their claims often reflect some element of truth.
The exchange of charges and denials began with the North Korean Defense Commission (NDC) when it claimed that the South had proposed holding three summit meetings ― starting with the first one in June at Panmunjom, a second one in August, and a third one in March next year on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. It alleged that the North rejected such a proposal because of the South’s demand for a North Korean apology for the sinking of the warship Cheonan.
The NDC also claimed that the South proposed a compromised version of a North Korean apology ``that would not be seen as an apology from the North Korean perspective, but that could be construed as an apology to the South,” or just ``an expression of regret.” The NDC also allegedly refused to accept an envelope of cash that the South tried to hand over to the North side.
The next morning on June 2, the Seoul government confirmed the fact that the secret talks were held in Beijing, but discredited North Korea’s characterization of the talks as ``grossly distorted.” Minister of Unification Hyun In-taek told the National Assembly that Seoul’s ``purpose” of the talks was not to negotiate the holding of a summit meeting but to obtain the North’s admission of responsibility and apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, as well as an assurance against recurrence of similar provocations in the future.
Seoul also criticized the North’s disclosure as a breach of the international norm of diplomatic practice. In a classical sense of bilateral diplomacy, it is desirable to keep secrecy on the facts or the content of negotiations, out of concern for negative reactions from domestic and foreign constituencies that might oppose or even try to sabotage the talks.
At the disclosure of the secret Beijing talks, the South Korean government was criticized from both its conservative supporters and its liberal opponents. The supporters are displeased by the compromise of the government’s ``principles and transparency” in the conduct of North Korea policy seeking the North’s change or collapse. The critics are attacking the government’s double standard and its failure to improve relations with the North, although they support engagement.
On Jun 9, a representative of the NDC Policy Bureau, who is said to have participated in the secret meetings, warned that the North would disclose voice recordings of the talks if the South keeps concealing the truth. This time the North presented more embarrassing details in order to refute the South’s denials that the purpose of the talks was not related to a summit and that no attempt was made to hand over a cash envelope. In contradiction to the South’s claim, the North retorted it had responded to the secret talks because the South had said it would not bring up the issues of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island.
To be fair to both sides, it is not a shame that they were engaged in secret contacts to negotiate the holding of a summit. The two previous summits were negotiated in secrecy until they were announced. The problem is that the South raised the bar too high for the North to reach.
President Lee said on several occasions that he would meet with Chairman Kim if he is serious about his commitment to denuclearization. Kim also said in his message to Jimmy Carter who visited late April that he was willing to have a summit meeting with the South. Unfortunately, neither side appeared ``sincere” in seeking a summit, especially after the South required the North to prove its ``sincerity” by apologizing for its responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan and for its artillery shelling on Yeonpyeong Island. What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.