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2009/02/19 11:04 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 42 (February 19, 2009)


North Korea's Anti-South Korea Campaign

By Cheon Seongwhun, Ph.D.

  Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, Korea

The Kim Jong-il regime has launched an increasingly virulent stream of criticism at the Lee Myung-bak government and the ruling conservative Grand National Party since Lee was sworn in as the 18th president of South Korea. Although North Korea has maintained a hostile posture towards South Korea's conservatives in the past, President Lee's election seems to have precipitated further belligerence towards South Korea. Maintaining a two-pronged approach -- lambasting South Korea with verbal and physical threats on the one hand and attracting the United States with a peace offensive on the other -- North Korea's current posture is creating confusion about its intentions and fostering uncertainty about the future of the Korean Peninsula.

   North Korea has persistently demanded South Korea honor the two statements agreed at two summit meetings, the June 15 declaration agreed with President Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and the October 4 declaration signed by President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. While the Lee government has been reluctant to meet the North's demand, saying merely it is willing to discuss how to implement the declarations, the Kim regime has ratcheted up its rhetoric and expanded an anti-Lee government campaign into the military sphere.

   For instance, the spokesman of the General Staff of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), on Jan. 17 this year, announced that the KPA would enter an "all-out confrontational posture" against South Korea and counter any attempt to nullify the self-designated demarcation line on the Yellow Sea. On Feb. 2, the spokesman called on the United States and South Korea to dismantle their own nuclear weapons and that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula be realized by mutual nuclear disarmament rather than by unilateral dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Antagonistic statements from the General Staff of the KPA are likely to be a signal that inter-Korean relations are entering a military confrontation stage, moving beyond a political struggle.

North Korea's Strategic Aims

At this juncture, we can suppose that North Korea has in mind both short-term and medium-term objectives. In the short term, the Kim Jong-il regime is focused on pressing the Lee government to change its North Korea policy in Pyongyang's favor by demonstrating that the current policy results in raised tension levels. By delivering psychological and physical impact on South Korean society, the Kim regime will stir South Korean public opinion to demand the Lee government change its North Korea policy. The KPA might initiate a preemptive attack and trigger military clashes either on the Yellow Sea or in the DMZ. While carefully avoiding doing damage to U.S. assets in South Korea, the KPA will try to resolve the problems of the long-held armistice arrangements and lure the Obama administration into tempting to change the status quo.

   Any military campaign by the North would have economic as well as psychological impact on the South. The South Korean economy, which faces difficulties due to the global financial crisis, would be hit hard by any military clash, which would affect stock markets, exchange rates, and foreign investment. Pro-North Korean liberal factions would denounce the Lee government and demand reversal of the North Korea policy in line with the sunshine policy of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. In short, Kim Jong-il may think that hostile military adventures will make it possible to manipulate Seoul and also attract Washington's attention, killing two birds with one stone.

   In the medium term, North Korea is believed to be focusing on South Korea's next Presidential election in 2012. Pyongyang will do its best for a liberal figure to be elected, who would continue to implement the benign North Korea policies of Presidents Kim and Roh. For this purpose, Kim Jong-il will attempt to weaken the political basis of the Lee government and the Grand National Party.

The South's Response to the North's Hostile Campaign

South Korea should take on North Korea's hostile campaign in two ways. On the one hand, Seoul should put skewed inter-Korean relations back on the right track. The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments committed two important strategic errors: to fail to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and to damage the fundamental values of South Korea by maintaining a favorable attitude towards the Kim Jong-il regime. The Lee government should reestablish national entities of the country as a legitimate representative of the Korean nation on the peninsula, and in sequence, normalize the inter-Korean relations by redeeming mistakes made during the 10 years of the liberal governments.

   The normalization is meant to manage the North-South Korean relations based on the firm conviction that the two Koreas are at a temporary stage of division heading toward a eventual peaceful unification rooted on democracy and market economy. Successful normalization will require fair and objective evaluation of the pros and cons of the North Korea policies of Kim and Roh governments and to draw appropriate lessons for the future. Building a national consensus on the North Korea policies of the previous governments is an essential element to remedy so-called "South-South conflict" regarding North Korea issues. Such an evaluation is not to hold someone accountable or to blame somebody. Knowing what mistakes were made in the past is a prerequisite for forging a better North Korea policy for the future.

   On the other hand, South Korea should pursue a new North Korea policy according to the proposition of separating the Kim Jong-il regime from ordinary people in North Korea. Up until the present date, a myth has prevailed that North Korea is a subject of dual nature. It is a psychological fixation that North Korea is an entity of enmity as well as of cooperation. Arguing that the North-South Korean relations are dual-natured, pundits have maintained that North Korea is a subject to which South Korea should be vigilant as well as give assistance; one both threatening and to be pitied. This long-held perspective has created much confusion among the South Korean public on how to understand North Korea and much dilemma in the South Korean bureaucracy on how to deal with Pyongyang regime. The Roh Moo-hyun government tried to solve this dilemma by pronouncing that North Korea was not South Korea's main enemy anymore. However, it was an unrealistic and irresponsible policy, ignoring the harsh military situation across the demarcation line.

   As a way to break the long-held myth and get out of the dilemma, a new North Korea policy should distinguish the North Korean regime from ordinary North Korean people, based on the clear understanding that North Korea consists of two entities -- the dictatorial regime on the one hand and the victimized people on the other hand. This policy of bifurcation will not result in refusing to talk with the North Korean regime but will ensure South Korea refrains from intentionally assisting the leadership under the pretext of helping the North. By focusing on the living of North Korean people, it will continue to provide humanitarian assistance and at the same time, take on the regime by raising issues like human rights, family reunion, and South Korean abductees. The bifurcation policy is expected to fulfill the South Korean public's emotional demand to help North Korean people and to draw international support as well by meeting the consensus and norms of the international community. As a result, the national image and credibility of South Korea will be enhanced to a considerable degree.

The U.S. Response against North Korea's Aggressive Postures

The Obama administration is likely to put prime importance on restoring the damaged alliance relationship with South Korea. In this context, the new U.S. administration will carefully listen to the opinions of the South Korean government in the process of formulating its North Korea strategy. Some in South Korean society argue that the Lee Myung-bak government should revise its current inflexible North Korea strategy, in order not to avoid being marginalized if U.S.-DPRK relations radically improve during the Obama presidency. However, such an opinion is groundless. The United States will be careful not to be trapped by Pyongyang's tactic of playing Washington off against Seoul.

   At the same time, the United States will pursue denuclearization of North Korea through tough and direct diplomacy. The new administration will thoroughly analyze the process and the achievements of the six-party talks during the past five years, and promote high-level talks with North Korea as a means to facilitate denuclearization. There is a possibility that liaison offices will be established in Pyongyang and Washington within President Obama's first term in office and a communication channel on ministerial or vice-ministerial level will be established if North Korea responds favorably.

   However, bilateral negotiation with Pyongyang will be based on realistic judgment and experience, not on wishful thinking. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, the Obama Administration does not have an illusions about negotiating with North Korea. With the abrogation of the Geneva Agreed Framework, there are many people in the Democratic Party who believe that they should not let themselves be fooled by Pyongyang twice. Therefore, while elevating the level of direct communication with North Korea in order to speed up the denuclearization process, the new administration is likely to exert economic and diplomatic pressure if North Korea does not give up its nuclear program. It will urge North Korea to make a clear choice by presenting both the carrot and the stick. Soon the ball will be in North Korea's court.