[OUTLOOK]A precious opportunity arises

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[OUTLOOK]A precious opportunity arises

The 13th round of North-South ministerial-level meetings is currently being held in Seoul. This writer attended the first four rounds of meetings held after the inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000 as head of the South Korean delegation. I still remember how we labored day and night to convince the North Korean representatives to turn these meetings into an official channel of communication of a more permanent and progressive nature, more befitting the post-Cold War era. It is with particular interest and expectation that I have followed the ministerial-level meetings to this day.
After the summit meeting, efforts toward reconciliation were continued with enthusiasm from both sides. Unfortunately, the surfacing of North Korean nuclear issues in 2002 revealed the obstacles and limits to our effort to make progress in North-South relations.
The aftermath of the North Korean nuclear issue caused a deterioration in relations between the two Koreas, and the project to build two light-water reactors in the North was halted. Scathing criticism of reconciliation policies was heard from parts of South Korean society as “South-South” strife rose over our policies toward the North.
The North Koreans seem to dig deeper into their isolation from the outside world, worsening their prospects of overcoming their dire economic difficulties. Although the date has finally been set for the second round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, the burdens on the shoulders of the delegates attending the North-South ministerial-level meetings are none the lighter in this overall difficult situation. Yet, I would like to voice a few optimistic expectations from this meeting.
The current situation requires the two sides to concentrate more on how well the ongoing projects are progressing right now, and whether there are any glitches to remove and problems to rectify. It would be more desirable and efficient to discuss the ongoing projects instead of bringing up suggestions for new projects.
Since the 2000 summit meeting, more than eight reunions of separated families were held with a total of 8,051 persons participating in these reunions. Nearly 19,000 persons verified the whereabouts of their separated family members and 679 could exchange correspondence. But there are many more people who are still waiting to hear news of their loved ones on the other side of the peninsula and hoping desperately to see their faces one day. The project to build a permanent reunion facility on Mount Geumgang is currently underway, but, in the meantime, North Korean authorities must continue to make the effort to verify the whereabouts of separated family members and make their reunions come true.
The summit meeting in 2000 was a confirmation of the belief on both sides that reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas and the alleviation of tension on the Korean Peninsula is the shortcut to a peaceful reunification. South Koreans have waited with patience over the last two years for the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program to be resolved. Despite the concern voiced by the United States that we were becoming “anti-American, pro-North Korean,” our government and people have been sending out a silent message to the North every day in hopes that the momentum of the progress in North-South relations that started with the summit meeting would continue. This silent message begs for a prudent decision by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
Through China’s mediation and South Korea’s active role, the first of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear problem was held in Beijing last August. At this meeting, the North Koreans have heard clearly from the other participants what the international community hopes from them. North Korea emphasized that the United States should give up its hostile policies toward Pyeongyang and delivered the message that should the United States guarantee the continuation of the North Korean regime, it would be willing to give up its nuclear development.
If North Korea meant what it said, in the second round of six-party talks it should show definite proof of its resolve to solve the nuclear issue and ameliorate relations with involved countries such as Japan. North Korea knows that such a move would also help bring peace on the Korean Peninsula and economic cooperation between the North and South. The South Korean delegation for the ministerial-level meetings being held in Seoul must do its best to convince the North Korean representatives, and make them understand the joint proposal of South Korea, Japan and the United States and the wish of the South Korean people to solve the North Korean nuclear issue.
North Korea knows that it has wasted much precious time in the progress of North-South relations. We must join hands in making up for this lost time. Both sides must discuss the future of joint projects in earnest and show efforts to grant the desperate wishes of the separated families while also showing good will in seeking a solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions at this meeting.
The ministerial-level meetings could also be an opportunity to turn the efforts between the two Koreas from the “ethnic cooperation against foreign forces” that the North Koreans demand into “open ethnic cooperation together with the world.” There have been many trials and errors, but we have gotten this far on the efforts of both North and South Korea to improve relations. It is my hope that both the North and South delegates show more maturity on the level of reciprocal trust through this precious opportunity.

* The writer, a former minister of unification, is the president of Kyungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Jae-kyu
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