[VIEWPOINT]The Dear Leader and the Blue HouseA North Korean weekly magazine distributed overseas, the Tongil Sinbo, ran the following comment in its July 8 edition. “Leading politicians of the governing and the opposition parties in the South who want to be the next president consider that they can win the presidential election only if they are granted a chance to visit North Korea and see His Excellency General Kim.”
Is this just stereotyped propaganda and agitation by North Korea? Not at all. Not only presidential hopefuls but also politicians of both the governing and opposition parties are caught up in an obsession that they should at least not be “persona non grata” in North Korea, and salivate at a chance to pay a courtesy call on the Dear Leader.
Let’s take a closer look at the situation. In the South, the opinion that we have to give priority to inter-Korean relations overwhelms opinions that emphasize the importance of South Korea-U.S. cooperation. In the same Tongil Sinbo article, there is a passage that says after the announcement of the South-North Joint Declaration on June 15, 2000, people of all walks of life started to consider the United States the biggest obstacle to unification.
It is marvelous that North Korea has such a good insight into the reality of South Korean society. Indeed, there is no reason that North Korea should be blind to what is going on in the South.
On an Internet site run by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, there are plenty of articles that praise North Korea, and the South Korean government only pretends to regulate such pro-North Korea Internet sites. There are also many civic groups that try to interrupt the smooth progress of matters related to the United States, such as negotiations on the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and the transfer of U.S. military bases, even by staging violent rallies.
It has already been quite some time since North Korea started to exercise influence on the appointment of our unification minister. Unification ministers who refused the North’s demands or who raised their voices against it could not stay in the cabinet long. At the sixth inter-Korean ministerial meeting at Mount Kumgang in November 2001, Hong Soon-young became angered at the high-handed behavior of his North Korean counterpart, declared the meeting over and returned to Seoul. Later, Mr. Hong explained what happened after that: “I was not even given a chance to see President Kim Dae-jung because of his furious indignation and the North’s strong reaction against me. I had to resign.”
At the 13th meeting, held on Feb. 13, 2004, the North Korean chief delegate Kim Young-sung criticized the South in his keynote speech. He said, “What on Earth has the South done for the North so far?” Jeong Se-hyun closed his eyes and kept silent throughout the meeting without making any response to his counterpart. Mr. Jeong became persona non grata in North Korea and was replaced a few months later.
Chung Dong-young won the enmity of the North immediately after he was inaugurated as unification minister in July 2004 by deciding not to allow the widow of a prominent pro-democracy movement leader and minister, Rev. Moon Ik-hwan, to visit North Korea to attend the 10th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s death. Mr. Chung had to show his “sincerity” toward the North by demanding the repeal of the National Security Law and attending a ceremony at the Kaesong Industrial Complex that did not require a cabinet minister’s presence. After making such efforts for nearly a year, Mr. Chung finally got a chance to meet Kim Jong-il in June 2005 to discuss Seoul’s proposal to provide the North with 2,000 megawatts of electricity as part of the six-nation nuclear talks.
We can also understand the situation in which the current minister, Lee Jong-seok, finds himself in the same context. Mr. Lee refused to provide additional fertilizer and food aid to the North because the North test-fired missiles despite the South’s request not to do so. The North retaliated against the South with the cancellation of scheduled reunions of separated families, a demand to withdraw construction workers from the family reunion center construction site at Mount Kumgang and so on. The North also launched a personal attacks on Mr. Lee, saying he refused to provide rice and fertilizer because he had “succumbed to U.S. pressure.” For the unification minister, it was a crisis. It is not clear whether it was a sheer coincidence or planned, but Mr. Lee said immediately after he was criticized by the North, “The United States is responsible for failing to dissuade North Korea from firing missiles,” and “There are differences in the views of the United States and South Korea.”
A government official said, “Succumbing to the pressure of those who emphasize inter-Korean cooperation with the North Korean regime, Mr. Lee is sending a signal of surrender.”
The presidential election is not that far away now. Judging from the way North Korea handles the unification minister of the South, it is apparent that the North will try to manipulate the political situation created in the South during the presidential campaign.
We are living in a country where people boast of “having never been to the United States” and hide the fact that they have “never visited North Korea.” The presidential contenders Kim Geun-tae and Chung Dong-young of the Uri Party and Park Geun-hye, Lee Myung-bak and Sohn Hak-kyu of the Grand National Party have all been to North Korea or had a chance to meet Kim Jong-il.
The North Koreans know well that South Korean politicians are eager to send surreptitiously friendly gestures to the North. South Korean politicians pay more attention to the North Korea factor than to the U.S. variables. That is the reason why North Koreans take it for granted that the South Korean leader will win the presidential election if “he is granted a chance to meet” the North’s leader or win some kind of agreement from him. It is a virtue for presidential hopefuls if they can maintain harmonious relations with North Korea.
But we cannot leave presidential candidates, like our unification ministers, to be swung to and fro in the hands of the North.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo