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(Yonhap Feature) North Korea plays diplomatic musical chairs

By Elysabeth Hahm
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has made considerable diplomatic steps recently that experts would have called "groundbreaking" just a few years ago. But today, all that can be said is, "We'll see."

   Years of on-and-off talks, reproach and unkept promises have left officials in Seoul and in the West unsure of what North Korea is up to behind those closed doors.

   According to Dr. Choi Jin-wook, the head of North Korea Research Center at the Korean Institute of National Unification, North Korea may look like they're making some progress, but the country's substantial achievement is very minimal.

   "The food situation is not getting better. They talk with China, the U.S. and Russia, but real change and real improvement is not getting any better," Choi said. "All these things that North Korea is doing are just to perform for their own people."

   "These things" that Choi refers to are what seem to be diplomatic steps that may have gained North Korea some acceptance. Not too long ago, the North's Korean Central News Agency gave Reuters and the Associated Press unprecedented access to the inside, allowing video access via satellite and a permanent text and photo bureau, respectively.

   In addition to that, the chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, held talks in North Korea earlier this summer to create an inter-Korean youth orchestra.

   Similarly, in early September, Chung Myung-whun, the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, visited North Korea to discuss the possibility of launching a musical education program for North Korean children and hosting an orchestral concert in Pyongyang.

   Less skeptical experts recognize how significant the New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang in February 2008 was at warming North Korea-U.S. relations. Thus, they hope, this "musical diplomacy" that North Korea is engaging in could perhaps set the mood in which inter-Korean dialogue proceeds smoothly.

Chung Myung-whun (C), music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, visited North Korea in early September to discuss education progrms for the North's youths. (Yonhap file photo)

And while Choi agrees that all these efforts are a step in the right direction, he doesn't think that the intention is toward easing relations with the rest of the world. Rather, he says, it's a performance for the country's own people.
"While they are aiming to make their international image better, they believe it doesn't pay off. That's why their audience is their own people. When they can't show some vision for their people next year, that's when they're in trouble," said Choi.

   A university student in Seoul, who wished to remain anonymous, agrees with Choi. Her skepticism peaked in early 2010, when a North Korean torpedo struck and sank the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy ship, killing 46 seamen.

   Then, she says, her distrust and skepticism hit an all-time high in November 2010 when North Korean forces fired approximately 170 artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island, off the western coast of South Korea.

   "Yes, I want to trust and hope that the North and the South will unify one day, but it is so difficult when they do things like that," said the student.

   According to her, just when the North seems like they are on the cusp of compromise, the country conducts a nuclear test or backs out from talks, bringing everything to a halt.

   "How can I trust a country that is so inconsistent?" she said.

   And while she may be voicing the opinion of many people, the simple fact that she has a strong opinion signifies a trend worth noting.

   Before the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong incidents, it was a well-known fact among researchers and experts that today's young generation was the most apathetic population to South-North relations.

   However, under the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, much has gone into unification-related efforts, such as studies, research and unification education. Thus, with the two incidents in 2010 and the new focus of the current government, there has been a significant increase in interest among the youth.

   According to a 2011 survey by KBS-TV, out of 1,000 respondents aged 19 years and above, the number of people with "no idea" or no opinion on North Korea fell to 1.8 percent from 13.5 percent in 2010.

   In other words, just a couple years ago, finding a university student who is educated and opinionated about relations on the peninsula may have been hard to find. But it is with ease that this particular student can talk about North-South tensions and what must happen for unification to be a tangible option.

   "I think it's simple," she says. "They have to give up their nuclear program."

Tom Curley (L), president of the Associated Press, and Kim Pyong-ho, president of the (North) Korean Central News Agency, shake hands at the AP's headquarters in New York on June 28, 2011, after signing an agreement on opening an AP bureau in Pyongyang. (AP-Yonhap)

Choi seconds this, but adds one more thing to the list: They must be willing to sincerely talk with Seoul and other outside countries.

   "They have disappointed the international community for too long. Nobody really trusts Pyongyang," said Choi. "When they come to the negotiation table, they always say they can't give up their nuclear program and they refuse to talk about their current system."

   And while distrust is the consensus among the international community, for South Koreans, the general sentiment is a little different.
Gloria Lee, a 27-year-old Seoul resident, explains: "I think it's too early to talk about trust for the public. All Koreans want is a public apology for Cheonan and Yeongpyeong," Lee said. "We just don't want war."

   According to the 2011 KBS-TV survey, the public agrees with Lee. Over 71 percent said that the two Koreas should be unified. When asked why unification should take place, 16 percent of them said they want to get out of the threat of war.

   Generally speaking, the South Korean people support government aid to the North. They support reconciliation and cooperation. Yet, principle takes precedence, making aid conditional.

   "North Korea's moves are optimistic," said Lee. "And we like seeing this. They should continue … but we just need more time to prove that they are sincere."