[VIEWPOINT]Critical inter-Korean talksInter-Korean meetings rarely produce a joint communique or agreement as scheduled because the two Koreas always consider the meeting a zero-sum game, where a gain for one side means a loss for the other. In the course of maximizing each party’s share, Pyongyang always pushes the meeting to the verge of rupture. In the extreme case, it threatens to call off the meeting altogether.
North Korea is good at skillfully manipulating the mind of the South, which strongly believes in the inter-Korean talks. Having grown accustomed to isolation, Pyongyang is deft at penetrating the anxiousness of the South to continue the talks. The latest meeting in Kaesong, which was extended beyond its scheduled period but resulted in a joint press statement with only three clauses, was not far off the existing pattern of such talks.
Depending on how you interpret it, the Kaesong meeting, which introduced a series of new formats, including commuting, overnight meetings, and an extension, was half success, half failure. The half success part is that it offered a chance to restore the communication channel between the South and the North. Agreeing to resume next month the 15th ministerial meeting, which has been deadlocked for 11 months, is a positive sign in relieving the tension in the Korean Peninsula.
If the inter-Korean conversation channel is not operating properly when tension elevates in the region, the government will suffer a sense of humiliation and powerlessness, which will have considerable aftereffects. Meanwhile, we need to pay attention to the failure side of the meeting. Although South Korean officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, insisted on including the nuclear issue in the joint press statement, the resulting statement fails to mention the principle of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang strictly limited and concluded the Kaesong meeting at the working level, not the vice-ministerial level. Pyongyang made it clear beforehand that the nuclear issue was not to be discussed in a working-level meeting. It might have calculated that it could get extra benefits in return, such as an additional 300,000 tons of fertilizer in aid, by including the nuclear issue in the ministerial-level meeting.
While Seoul ambitiously proposed an “important offer” for progress on the nuclear issue, Pyongyang remained silent. In the end, North Korea has not changed its existing position that its nuclear program is a matter between Pyongyang and Washington. Pyongyang has decided that even if the South mentioned a North Korean version of the Marshall Plan, it would be meaningless unless its relationship with the United States was reestablished first.
North Koreans were more interested in the certainty of fertilizer at present than the ambiguity of an “important offer” in the future. Providing fertilizer, a non-strategic item, might be considered an act of brotherly love. Especially since Pyongyang’s “main target” of economic development for this year is increasing food production, the South might be able to participate in the cause by providing fertilizer. However, it might not be the leisurely time for the two Koreas to discuss such a humanitarian agenda amid the crisis posed by North Korea’s nuclear program.
The government claims that one of the outcomes of the meeting is that a team of South Korean delegates headed by the Minister of Unification will visit the North for the joint ceremony on June 15 to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2000 Inter-Korean summit. However, if the Pyongyang event remains an unnecessary show without a discussion of the nuclear issue, the visit could hurt the government like a boomerang.
Especially when considering precedents, the Pyongyang event might be exploited to propagate North Korea’s unification front and strategy. If the point of the nuclear threat is blurred in the name of national cooperation, both the South and the North will become publicly isolated.
The inter-Korean talks have to be associated with the resolution of the nuclear crisis, no matter how small the link might be. Right on time, the United States has recognized the North as a sovereign state and delivered a message through the New York channel urging Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks. The ball of the North Korean nuclear crisis has been tossed to the month of June.
If the Korean government does not contribute to reviving the six-way talks through the ministerial talks and other means, the inter-Korean talks will be criticized as useless, and Washington’s pressure on the Korean Peninsula will only accelerate. The government must not forget that the international community is suspicious of the joint ceremony in June, jointly organized by the two Koreas regardless of the nuclear crisis.
* The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Nam Sung-wook