President Lee Enters 3rd Year in Office with Focus on N.K. Nuclear Issue
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will enter the third year of his five-year term on Feb. 25 with a principled North Korea policy that is different from that of his two predecessors.
For the past two years, the Lee administration has adhered to a firm and toughened policy toward Pyongyang that has linked reciprocal assistance for North Korea with progress in its denuclearization.
Lee was sworn in with a call for North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, holding out the prospect of massive economic assistance for the impoverished neighbor in exchange for denuclearization.
As far as North Korea policy is concerned, President Lee was elected on his pledge of "Vision 3000," or "denuclearization, opening and 3,000," meaning that Seoul would assist the North in achieving per capita income of US$3,000 in exchange for the socialist country's denuclearization and opening of its market. As expected, North Korea rejected Seoul's new proposal.
From the outset, the Lee administration took a firm and stern stance toward Pyongyang, saying the unconditional assistance to the North by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations spoiled the socialist regime.
Inter-Korean relations chilled quickly, however, as Pyongyang strongly protested Lee's decision to review past summit deals that his predecessors signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Those deals call for huge aid projects for the North, and Lee wanted to make sure that the agreements are in line with international efforts to end the North's nuclear programs.
Their relationship further plummeted when a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a guard at a North Korean mountain resort in July 2008. The tours to Mt. Kumgang on the east coast remain suspended to this day, while tension persists off the west coast after the North declared South Korean border areas there as its own.
Despite the North's harsh rhetoric against the South, the Lee government has refused to buckle, pressing the communist neighbor to see the new administration as different from its liberal-leaning predecessors that were accused of bending under pressure from the North.
Even humanitarian assistance was suspended or scaled down due to the cold relations between the two Koreas. The previous administrations provided the North with rice and fertilizer aid to the impoverished North every year. But the Lee administration has not sent rice or fertilizer for the past two years.
Rather, the incumbent government took tougher stance on the sensitive issues of North Korea's dismal human rights record and South Korean prisoners of war and civilians captured by the North. These issues were not raised seriously by the previous administrations of Kim and Roh for fear that the South would irritate the North too much.
North Korea began to show angry response to the Lee administration's policy, expelling South Korean officials in March 2008 from the economic cooperation office in the joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong.
North Korea's media called President Lee a "traitor" to the Korean people and showed a belligerent response to the South's policy. Effective Dec. 1, 2008, the North placed strict restrictions on overland transportation across the border and the number of South Koreans allowed to stay in the Kaesong industrial zone. In January last year, the North declared an all-out confrontational posture against the South, hinting at possible military clash along the heavily armed border areas.
It was North Korea that first reached out to the other side after a year-and-a-half of high tension. In August last year, Pyongyang sent a high-level delegation to Seoul to pay tribute at the funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a move seen as an olive branch from the North after U.N. sanctions, slapped on the country for its nuclear test, exacerbated its economic woes.
Since then, North Korea has agreed to resume temporary reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and offered talks on cross-border ventures, even though it has mixed its peace offensive with provocative gestures.
A North Korean naval boat fired toward a South Korean patrol ship in November, prompting a gunfight near the western sea border. The North last month rekindled tension there by firing hundreds of artillery shots along its side of the border.
Despite the militant moves, analysts say the North will continue to reach out to the South, as it is in dire need of outside assistance to address its deepening economic difficulties.
Officials here hope the internal predicament will eventually force Pyongyang to embrace the comprehensive aid package that Seoul offered to dismantle the North's nuclear arms programs once and for all.
"For decades, North Korea has tried to bypass Seoul and talk directly with Washington," James Schoff, Director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Massachusetts-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said in an e-mailed commentary. "After all, the fundamental threat to peace in Korea is not the North's nuclear program per se; rather, it is the North's unwillingness to accept the South as its primary partner for peace-making. This can't go on," he said.
Kim Tae-hyo, a top national security advisor to Lee, said Feb. 23 that making North Korea recognize South Korea as a serious partner in the nuclear talks is the foremost condition for the earnest improvement of relations between the countries. "Full-fledged economic cooperation depends on how North and South Korea together open a breakthrough in the nuclear issue," he told a forum.
Citing a survey that said 84 percent of South Koreans back the "grand bargain" proposed by Lee, Kim said his government will continue to pursue its existing North Korea policy unless Pyongyang "makes the big decision" to discuss its nuclear programs with Seoul.
Looking to reverse the failure of previous rounds of talks with the North, President Lee proposed a "Grand Bargain" last year aimed at striking a one-time package deal on dismantling the socialist state's nuclear programs in a single step rather than in stages in return for massive economic assistance.
Kim denied the Seoul government has been fixated on raising the nuclear issue with Pyongyang, but argued that North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose the greatest threat to inter-Korean relations.
"Our government has been (flexible) and will continue to be so," he said, expressing hope that "results will clearly appear in the third year ... The question is how we can take the lead creatively in holding dialogue with North Korea and the international community," he said.
Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea researcher from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, proposed that the two Koreas first build trust in each other by facilitating military talks on ways to scale down their military build-up along the demarcation line. "With enough trust built between the sides, they could eventually begin a regular dialogue channel solely devoted to implementing steps to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula," he said.
North Korea said earlier this week that it wants to hold military talks with South Korea in early March on easing border restrictions that have hindered transportation and communications in and out of the joint industrial complex in Kaesong. Seoul, which had proposed an earlier date, has yet to accept the proposal.
Media attention has also been keenly focused on whether or when the president will hold a summit with the North's leader, Kim Jong-il. Lee has said he is willing to meet Kim anytime and anywhere as part of efforts to denuclearize the socialist neighbor and ease tensions on the peninsula.
Inter-Korean relations are also deeply related to the progress of the six-party talks to end the North's nuclear weapons program. South Korea and the United States are currently maintaining close coordination on resolving the nuclear issue.
But the North has insisted it will not return to the stalled talks unless U.N. sanctions on it are lifted. It also demanded peace treaty talks with the parties concerned to replace the armistice of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Recently, Seoul has also been encouraged by signs of change coming from Pyongyang. The North has signaled its intention to rejoin the six-way nuclear talks, with the South holding fast to its position linking inter-Korean economic cooperation with progress in the denuclearization process.
"Placing great emphasis on the importance of Korea-U.S. cooperation was one of great things the Lee Myung-bak administration did because a good relationship with the U.S. is a must when working to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue," said Cheong Seong-chang, chief of the inter-Korean affairs bureau at the Sejong Institute near Seoul.
"Still, the absence of a control tower within the government to oversee or coordinate policies on the so-called North Korea issue or the North Korean nuclear issue is a problem," he said, adding the lack of any significant or high-level dialogue between the divided Koreas in recent years may have led to a decrease in Seoul's leverage on Pyongyang.
Cheong said a summit between Lee and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may provide a solution to the deadlock in inter-Korean ties that have been further hampered by Pyongyang's prolonged boycott of the six-nation talks. The nuclear talks, involving both South and North Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia, were last held in December 2008.