A spoiled victorySouth and North Korea agreed to resume reunions of families separated during the Korean War in the ministerial talks concluded last weekend, their first high-level meeting since Pyongyang’s nuclear test last October. The talks were not completely satisfactory, although they brought mildly hopeful results. In addition to the agreement on resuming reunions of separated families, the two sides agreed that the issue of POWs and kidnapped South Korean citizens now living in the North would be dealt with at the Red Cross meeting to be held in early April.
While no definite dates were set, Seoul and Pyongyang were also in accord that test runs on the trans-Korean railroad project should take place in the near future. The next round of reunions for separated families is set for early May.
All in all, it seems that inter-Korean relations are restored to the pre-nuclear test level. In particular, Seoul announced that it would hold a committee meeting on April 18 to form a plan to resume rice and fertilizer aid to the North. South Korea suspended aid after Pyongyang test-fired a series of missiles last July despite numerous warnings.
The talks were successful in the sense that Seoul had made resolving the issue of the North’s nuclear program a precondition for resuming humanitarian aid.
It is, however, regrettable that our government should end up negating its own achievements by fumbling with the announcement of the results. Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, immediately upon his return to Seoul, called for an unscheduled press conference and announced that he had agreed in principle to provide 400,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer to the North. However, there had been no mention of such an agreement in the joint statement issued after the meeting. Mr. Lee corrected his announcement, claiming that he meant to say such was the amount of aid requested by the North Koreans.
Unfortunately, with South Korean politics sensitively attuned to the inter-Korean relationship and this being a presidential election year, the minister’s slip of the tongue brought on a hoard of suspicions and allegations that there had been a politically-motivated secret agreement with the North during this meeting. Whether or not these allegations are true, it is a pity that our unification minister lacked the sense to judge what he should say and not say in public.
We are of the opinion the more rice and fertilizer sent to help the North, the better ― provided that the process is transparent. This transparency is two-fold. We need transparency to ensure that the aid goes to the proper recipients -- that is, to the cold and starving people of North Korea and not to their authoritarian government. Second, we need the negotiations on aid to be clear and open because the inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000 has already shown us the limits of backdoor agreements.
This controversy is quite regrettable in that it seems to point out that our government is willing to ignore the principle of transparency in their haste to provide aid to North Korea.