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2008/08/21 10:43 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 17 (August 21, 2008)


A Paradigm Shift in Seoul's North Korea Policy

By Park Young-ho (Research Fellow, the Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, Korea)

In his address to the nation on the 63rd anniversary of the country's liberation and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reiterated his vision for "a top-notch, advanced nation." He also offered his idea for a "Unified Korea," saying that inter-Korean relations should be based upon a "policy of mutual benefits and common prosperity" between South and North. That phrase has become the mantra of the Lee administration's North Korea policy, and reflects a paradigm shift in Seoul's North Korea policy.

   President Lee emphasized three points with regard to inter-Korean relations: bringing about permanent peace by eliminating the North's nuclear weapons program, pushing for North Korea to become a responsible member of the global community, and a need for South Korea to "proactively carry out substantive economic cooperation programs with the North and ultimately materialize a Korean Peninsula economic community" in accordance with Pyongyang's continued moves to dismantle its nuclear programs. Lee has also urged North Korea to come forward so the two nations can engage in comprehensive dialogue and economic cooperation.

President Lee's Message on Inter-Korean Relations

President Lee's message on inter-Korean relations is simple and clear: Now is the time to realize the vision of "a top-notch, advanced nation," and to forge another 60 years based on national development. This approach may appear to only benefit South Korea, but it will also help North Korea develop its economy. To accomplish this, President Lee has called for "new thinking and a new direction" in inter-Korean relations. South Korea, along with the rest of the world, is ready to extend a helping hand to the North. It is the most opportune time for the North to make a change.

   For the past six decades, South and North Korea have walked different paths. While South Korea enjoys economic success -- its GNI was ranked 12th in the world in 2006 -- North Korea is among the world's poorest nations. Since the July 7 declaration of 1988, inter-Korean relations have improved quantitatively. The volume of inter-Korean trade has increased steadily along with the number of exchanged persons. During the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation operated with the assumption that they would establish confidence between the two Koreas, and bring about change in the North.

   Nevertheless, even until now inter-Korean relations have been neither bilateral nor reciprocal. Rather they have been unilateral, with South Korea supporting the failing North Korean economy. Furthermore, the relations have often been influenced by North Korea's arbitrary behaviors, as we see in the current stalemate at the governmental level. In the history of inter-Korean dialogue, ever since the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, there have been many times when North Korea has broken off inter-Korean dialogue unilaterally and abruptly. The resumption of dialogue has depended not upon mutual agreement but because the South has sought North Korea's compliance. Consequently, inter-Korean relations have remained unstable and are far from being institutionalized. These are due to some key strategic mistakes in South Korea's approach to North Korea under the past two governments.

Strategic Mistakes in South Korea's Past Approach to North Korea

Firstly, past policies have failed to build confidence in inter-Korean relations, to achieve political-military reconciliation, or to reduce tension. The North Korean nuclear issue, which was triggered in the early 1990s, continues to cast a pall on inter-Korean dialogue. Moreover, the June 15 Joint Declaration has not contributed to the solution of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, despite it being the most urgent pending issue. Pyongyang has even attempted to justify its demand for economic aid and cooperation from Seoul by falsely arguing that its nuclear program guarantees South Korea's security as well as its own against U.S. threats.

   Second, both the Kim and Roh governments bought into the illusion that maintaining inter-Korean relations under any circumstances signals the development of inter-Korean relations. It is a myth that the continuation of the status-quo will bring about changes in the North, yet by such reasoning have past governments justified South Korea's lenient and passive responses to Pyongyang's provocation. The North has taken advantage of this. It is time for the South to finally demand that its communist neighbor fulfill its responsibilities as set forth in such agreements as the Joint Declaration of Denuclearization, among others.

   Third, the issue of separated families, which was a part of the June 15th Joint Declaration, has not been resolved. The issues of prisoners of war and of South Koreans abducted by North Korea also remain unresolved. While South Korea repatriated the so-called "unconverted long-term prisoners" to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, North Korea continues to react negatively when any of the aforementioned issues are raised.

   Fourth, the former Kim and Roh governments also naively miscalculated that the North will somehow give back or transform later if Seoul first provides aid. This is far from the reality, and the North has tried to manipulate this faulty reasoning. Pyongyang has not changed its totalitarian and suppressive regime, even while its dependency on the South's economy has increased. Instead, the North has continued to promote fractionalization among South Koreans through its incessant propaganda.

   Finally, the past governments overlooked the importance of South Korea's relations with its allies and the international community that ushered this nation into becoming the advanced country it is today, for the sake prioritizing its relationship with the North.

The Most Opportune Time for North Korea to Make Change

Indeed, we have left the nuclear issue unresolved for a while, not being able to guide North Korea to change its insincere attitude. Furthermore, in spite of Seoul's overwhelming political advantage over Pyongyang, North Korea has occasionally steered the direction inter-Korean relations. Consequently, the South Korean public has increasingly shown their discontent, and has asked the government to shift its North Korea policy. A democratic government has a solemn obligation to reflect the public mandate. Now is the time to start establishing normalized inter-Korean relations.

   The people's mandate to the Lee Myung-bak government is to lead inter-Korean dialogue in the right direction. Once and if South and North Korea depart from unilateral behaviors and the relationship becomes more reciprocal, both sides will cease to see their political gains as mutually exclusive.

   A temporary stalemate between South and North does not necessarily mean a total regression of inter-Korean relations. South Korea is ready to continue to aid, assist and cooperate to alleviate the poverty and difficulties of ordinary North Koreans. At the same time, when Pyongyang makes irrational requests, Seoul should be able to say reject them. When the North Korean regime returns to the table and is ready for rational discussion, it will increase the opportunities for the North's people to enjoy a higher quality of life.

   China, North Korea's foremost ally and the host country of the 29th Summer Olympic Games, recently marked the 30th anniversary of economic reform and the opening of the country. Even Cuba is beginning to dramatically reform their socialist system. It is now North Korea's turn to challenge its own past by taking drastic reform measures. As President Lee put it, now is the most opportune time for the North to change. Once the North Korean leadership makes a strategic decision to fully engage in inter-Korean dialogue, there will be great opportunities for North Koreans to reap the benefits of change and economic cooperation. (Yonhap News)