[OUTLOOK]Don’t exploit inter-Korean talksEverybody would welcome an improvement in inter-Korean relations and the eventual reunification of the peninsula. However, the closer it gets to the local elections, the more the authorities talk about the inter-Korean issues, resulting in people having all sorts of unreasonable assumptions and suspicions.
There have been many announcements, such as of large concessions to the North, test runs of the cross-border railroads, or a summit between the two Koreas to take place within the year.
Everybody knows that these announcements must have been made in a bid to improve ties with the North. These announcements, however, are suspected of being “northern winds,” because they have come right before the local elections ― there have been many cases in which inter-Korean ties were used for political purposes.
The best example of a “northern wind” is the July 4 South-North Joint Communique. On May 3, 1972, Kim Il-sung, then the president of North Korea, met with Lee Hu-rak, the director of the South’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
Kim said that if South Korea agreed on the three principles for reunification, the announcement of the communique would be made after South Korean leaders discussed it among themselves and North Korea agreed on it. Kim essentially left the timing of the announcement to South Korea.
On July 4, 1972 the communique was announced simultaneously in Seoul and Pyongyang. Only three months later, however, Park Chung Hee assumed emergency measures, granting himself unlimited tenure at the top. That only proved that he and his men used the people’s expectations of reunification for political purposes.
However, since the institution of martial law in 1972, a “northern wind” has never been as effective on people as politicians have wished.
For example, only three days before the National Assembly elections on April 10, 2000, a summit meeting between the two Koreas leaders was announced. Asked whether the election date was taken into account, Park Jie-won, the culture minister at the time, said, “Pyongyang seemed to think Seoul wanted to hurry to announce it because the elections were drawing near.”
This implies that the government took the elections into account and that the North had understood that. “The North asked about the timing of the announcement in relation to the general election for the National Assembly. I said clearly that the basic principle was not to use the North for political gain,” Mr. Park said.
However, South Koreans believed that this comment was made out of political calculation. As a result, the Democratic Party lost to the Grand National Party, 115 to 133.
The problem was that not only South Korean voters thought that way; North Korea shared this suspicion.
On April 11, 2000, on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, an article read, “South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung will visit Pyongyang from June 12 to 14, at his own request.” But on the fifth page, another article titled “South Korea’s Rotten Election System” criticized “a bunch of the governing party members [who] have been acting crazy to win a legislative majority.”
Even though the North compromised with South Korea on the timing of the announcement, it criticized the South Korean government for using the inter-Korean ties for political gain. It seems that South Korean politicians do not know what all other residents on the Korean Peninsula know, or at least they pretend not to know.
This is why such matters as former president Kim Dae-jung’s visit to North Korea or test operations of the cross-border railroad are not seen as being as important as they should be, and even raise controversy, despite the government’s explanation and expectation. This is regrettable, indeed.
It can be said that the current government is paying for the former governments’ wrongdoings of using inter-Korean ties for their own interests. At the same time, however, the current political environment cannot be seen as not having the same intentions at all.
As long as these practices keep up, it will be hard to expect relations between South and North Korea to improve. If South Korean leaders negotiate with their counterparts while taking into account their usefulness in domestic politics, normal procedures and customs will be ignored and most South Koreans will not appreciate the progress.
It is not too late. The government should not give in to the temptation to use inter-Korean relations for political gain. Our citizens’ awareness of politics has improved, and using inter-Korean issues for other purposes is no longer accepted. Kim Dae-jung won’t be happy to be in the middle of such a controversy.
We should remember that when citizens’ distrust of authority was deep enough, even the system under martial law, which looked invincible, was destroyed.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Kyungnam University.
by Sim Ji-yeon
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?