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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on Jan. 18)

2014/01/18 09:32

Breaking the deadlock

: Both Koreas ought to change their thinking, approaches

South and North Korea have both started 2014 by expressing intentions to improve their relationship but then going the other way.

In his New Year message, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stressed the need to ameliorate inter-Korean ties no fewer than “three times.” President Park Geun-hye told a news conference that reunification of this divided peninsula would be like “hitting the jackpot.”

But the North rejected President Park’s offer to resume the humanitarian event of reuniting dispersed families, citing the annual Korea-U.S. joint military drill. On Thursday, Pyongyang abruptly proposed that both sides halt hostile military actions and mutual slander to build better relations, urging Seoul to cancel a scheduled war game.

It took the South less than a day to turn this down, commenting that the North is trying to “mislead public opinion by distorting facts and making absurd allegations.”

So much for the game of rhetoric ― it is tempting to say.

Presumably, North Korea’s Kim, having consolidated his power base, badly needs to improve the economy to show his ability as a leader and stabilize popular sentiments in the wake of his brutal purge of potential rivals. He then should have accepted President Park’s proposal instead of linking a humanitarian event to political issues. It would also have been better for Park if she had hinted at the possibility of reopening Mt. Geumgang tours on condition of the North’s positive reply to her offer.

Likewise, it was regrettable for Seoul to reject Pyongyang’s latest proposal for no more hostilities and insults, however superficial it might be. North Korean officials might have thought they would have little to lose with the peace offensive: if Seoul accepts it, the consequent resumption of aid would help to better their dire economic conditions. Even if the South refuses to accept it, Pyongyang can propagandize its positive efforts while accumulating excuses for yet another military provocation.

Yet the North Korean leadership should know that Seoul is not so naive as to allow Pyongyang to take the initiative in the inter-Korean relationship with its multipurpose offer.

That said, an old diplomatic saying goes, “He is not deceived who knows himself to be deceived.” We think this axiom applies to current inter-Korean relations when the South’s overall national power, even including their military might except for nuclear arms, is at least 30 times larger than the North’s ― and especially if national unification constitutes the backbone of state administration, as President Park emphasized in her press conference.

Park said that unification is good and a must but has so far stopped short of explaining what kind of unification she has in mind and how she would accomplish it. Her national security aides have hinted at the possibility of a North Korea collapse through division within its leadership or a popular revolt. But most experts and North Korean defectors say that the regime can, and will, last far longer than expected. Nor can Seoul handle the North’s abrupt fall, which may likely prove to be a social and economic catastrophe for the South, too.

The only way to facilitate and prepare for unification is through expanding economic and human exchanges, which was exactly what Germany did and former President Kim Dae-jung aimed at with his Sunshine Policy. It is regrettable in this regard that some conservatives are calling for the liberal opposition party to revise ― actually discard ― this engagement policy, which they say only helped the North complete its nuclear weapons program.

We beg to differ. It was the hostility and sanctions that have sped up the North’s nuclear armament. There is only one safe, peaceful ― and practicable ― way of unification: make the North’s take off its thick clothes of isolation with the sunlight of more freedom and capitalism.

President Park must take off where her liberal predecessor left off.