Gradual Normalization Is Only Realistic Option
President Lee Myung-bak has been unlucky so far: elected amidst much expectation, he was bound to cause eventual disappointments even had things gone extremely well. Unfortunately, things did not go well, especially at the economic front ― but North Korea also makes a lot of trouble.
Inter-Korean relations haven't been this bad in more than a decade: North Korean media erupted with verbal abuse of Seoul, the exchanges were dramatically scaled down by Pyongyang, and military provocation seems likely.
When President Lee took office a year ago, he faced two options in dealing with the North. It could have been business as usual, accepting President Roh Moo-hyun's policy of unilateral concessions and unconditional aid and pumping more and more money toward Pyongyang.
Indeed, the current confrontation was initiated by the North, although some Seoul officials contributed to the crisis.
Pyongyang's message is clear: It wants to show that engagement will be possible only if their conditions are met and that the other side's attempts to infuse conditionality are not acceptable.
Perhaps they're not so much targeting President Lee but sending a warning to future South Korean leaders. This should be a lesson to remember.
The North Korean rulers believe that for a while, they will enjoy a more amiable U.S. policy, and this makes them more willing to risk a confrontation with the South.
They hope that the Obama administration will be dominated by soft-liners. I'm writing this from Washington D.C., and things I've heard recently make me skeptical about these assumptions, but they seem to be widely believed in Pyongyang.
Hysterics of Pyongyang Leaders
Unfortunately, the well-rehearsed hysterics of the Pyongyang leaders cannot be simply neglected. If ignored, the North Koreans will keep raising the level of tensions, and sooner or later their threats and provocations will start having an impact on the South Korean economy and its international standing ― investors like stable countries.
Hence, gradual normalization is the only realistic option, and this normalization is possible only if South agrees to give…
When President Lee took power, his buzzword for North Korean policy was ``conditionality." It might be a good idea, but conditions should be moderate in order to be accepted.
There are serious problems with the ``3000 vision" plan which is still presented as the basis of President Lee's ``Nordpolitik." The 3000 vision implies that Seoul is willing to provide the North with a generous aid package which will increase its per capita GDP to $3000 (the current level, depending on whom you believe, is between $500 and $1500). As a condition, the North should surrender nuclear weapons and introduce Chinese-style reforms.
Needless to say, it's a non-starter. The North Korean government would not mind being showered with aid, but the conditions are utterly unacceptable to it.
For the Kim family and its henchmen ― the only people whose views really matter on this stage ― political stability is far more important than economic growth, and they will never accept even the most generous offers if conditions attached might put immediate political stability in doubt.
If this is the case, what should be done now? Maybe some simple guidelines will be of help in dealing with the North.
• Do not overreact. Tough statements do not work with the North Koreans, who are second to none when it comes to chest-beating and saber-rattling. Calm indifference to Pyongyang's abuse is the only wise strategy. If Pyongyang leaders move to military provocation, the same rule should be applied as well: The invading ships or troops should be repelled, but the damage should be kept to a minimum.
• Do not entertain false hopes: The north will not denuclearize and will not initiate Chinese-style reforms, since Pyongyang leaders see these measures as the surest way to their demise, East German-style. Like it or not, the North will remain what it is for some time, a destitute and brutal dictatorship whose leaders are oblivious to the sufferings of the commoners.
• The resumption of full-scale interaction with the North is highly desirable and constitutes the only way to deal with the North. In other words, the revival of the Sunshine Policy ― albeit with some important moderations ― is the only way to go. In the short run, such an approach will help to reduce tensions, and in the long run, the exchanges will bring more information about the outside world to the North, which will likely undermine the regime, although it will take a long time.
• Do not have overly optimistic expectations of ``reciprocity." North-South interaction can be described as ``cooperation" in the media, but it is misleading. Because of gross economic inequality, the North has almost nothing to offer.
• When/if interaction resumes, insist on conditionality while quietly accepting its limits. Instead of grand schemes, demand minor concessions, like monitoring or the involvement of South Korean personnel in implementing projects on the ground. The bottom line is the economic exchanges should increase interpersonal interaction between Southerners and Northerners and the power of local entities.