[Outlook]Summit yes, but keep within the lawWhat is North Korea to us? Both an object of fear and a genetic partner at the same time, we try to reach out and bond with it in any way possible while simultaneously keeping our guard. Underlying our relationship with North Korea is the realistic premise that peace must be upheld at all times. Also, we cannot deny that blood is thicker than water when it comes to our feelings toward North Korea ― even when we are aware that, at times, Pyongyang takes advantage of our “softness.”
There is a manifest expectation that a second South-North summit will take place this year as a follow-up to the historic meeting in 2000. There is a wide spectrum of opinions on this issue. Some feel that holding a summit meeting in a politically sensitive year ― the presidential elections are to be held in December ― is too risky. Others feel that with the recent conclusion of the talks on North Korea’s nuclear situation, a summit meeting could increase the momentum for ameliorating inter-Korean relations. There are even rumors that a close aide of the president had recently covertly sounded out Pyongyang with the idea of a summit meeting.
A summit meeting could indeed facilitate positive changes in inter-Korean relations. In some ways, it is an indispensable procedure in the amelioration of our relationship with North Korea.
However, the necessity of the summit meeting put aside, in no way should the government ignore the law and proper procedure in their pursuit of such a meeting. The government should remember that a covert set-up and secret negotiations with Pyongyang could compromise the very significance of the summit meeting in the eyes of the public.
Above all, the government must always endeavor to prove the legitimacy of its North Korea policies to the public. The more exceptionally important and sensitive a national issue is ― as in the case of a South-North summit meeting ― the more strictly it should be pursued within the legal system established by democratic consent.
There are laws such as the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and the Inter-Korean Relations Development Act that stipulate the procedures for making contact with North Korea. According to these laws, it would clearly be illegal for a presidential aide to contact North Korean authorities without first filing a report to the Ministry of Unification or for an individual to deliver an official government proposal to Pyongyang.
In the past, such illegal actions might have been overlooked as “acts of the state,” but theory and judicial precedents show that we no longer tolerate such disguising of illegal acts today. Even today, the majority of the South Korean people still harbor suspicions about possible North Korean interference in our presidential elections. The public wariness is such that even a legitimately arranged summit meeting could be met with cynicism.
If the rumors are true that an unofficial presidential aide has secretly contacted the North Koreans about arranging a summit meeting, those responsible would not only face heavy public censure but also the due consequences of their illegal actions.
Covert contact with Pyongyang poses a grave problem in that it sends the wrong message to North Korea, that our acts of state can always be twisted behind closed curtains according to how it pleases.
It is true that some negotiations require certain contents to be partially and temporarily kept from the public. However, if the negotiations are such that it would never happen if its existence was made transparent and open to the public, it is better not to even start them. Secret negotiations can no longer be accepted as “unavoidable alternatives” in this democratic and constitutional country. Any illegal pursuit of a summit meeting that fails to win the support of the people would only end up delaying or even jeopardizing the inter-Korean reconciliation process altogether.
Another problem that would rise should our government attempt any secret negotiations for a summit meeting with North Korea is the possibility that such a summit meeting would create tension among us in the South in these sensitive times.
Over the past few years, we have experienced a severe battle of ideologies centered on South-North relations and remnants of this strife are still around. A South-North summit meeting can only be successful if it takes into consideration the situation that there are drastically different perspectives on the meeting.
In its heyday, the Roh Moo-hyun government conducted an investigation into the secret funds sent to the North by the Kim Dae-jung administration as part of a deal for the first summit meeting. The investigation was a promise that all governmental transactions with North Korea would be transparent from then on. It would be tragic folly and irony should the Roh administration follow the tracks of its predecessor in covertly arranging a summit meeting with Pyongyang.
If we are to hold a summit meeting with the North, let it be a successful one. That is, let it be arranged without unnecessarily aggravating political tension within our society. All initial contacts with the North Korean side should be according to due process under the law and made open to the public.
Only then would the summit meeting bring true reconciliation and not political strife.
*The writer is a professor of public law at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Hyung-sung