A compass for the North

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A compass for the North

North Korea is pursuing a strategy of talking only with the United States and shunning the South. Hardly a day goes by without Pyongyang severely censuring the South Korean government. The slanders include “the puppet army of the South” and “fascist autocracy.” In contrast, it is demonstrating a friendly attitude toward the United States. Not only did it invite the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to Pyongyang, it also changed its stubborn stance on the nuclear issue and is now offering to provide the operational records of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. With a little concession on the nuclear issue, Pyongyang can improve its relationship with the United States, which will lead to economic assistance as well as security. So Pyongyang is pursuing a confrontational structure with the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has gotten on its bad side. Seoul is ignoring or responding to Pyongyang’s attacks with rhetoric of its own, arguing that the appeasement-oriented North Korea policy should be abandoned.
Nevertheless, the Korean government is moving to somewhat modify the existing strategy. A government official said, “If North Korea asks for humanitarian aid, we will work to provide it regardless of the nuclear issue.” Another said, “The administration, of course, respects the declarations of June 15 and Oct. 4.” These remarks seeking appeasement are in consideration of the possible breakthrough in the dull and lengthy nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
However, the chance is very slim that Pyongyang will change its attitude. Therefore, as U.S.-North relations improve, the chill will remain between the two Koreas. And it could be a burden to Seoul. Yet, Seoul cannot cling to the inter-Korean dialogue as the Roh Moo-hyun administration did. The government finds itself facing a dilemma. But when the situation becomes complicated, the government must draw a bigger picture and establish the principles for its North Korea policy. The negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang could result in the abandonment of the North Korean nuclear program, and consequently, the North could enter to the international community. Then we must decide whether we will tolerate Pyongyang’s favoring the U.S. and shunning Seoul or whether we will work to improve inter-Korean relations based on the progress of the U.S.-North relations. Once we define the bigger picture, we can legislate and implement specific plans.
And yet, the Lee administration’s North Korea policy is working against this. It has failed to propose a fundamental policy direction such as the July 7 1988 Declaration of “North Korea as a partner.” Its responses have been inconsistent and merely attempt to reverse what the Roh administration did. The four principles of inter-Korean economic cooperation are one example. Of course, the principles are not wrong. But at a time when the North is not interested in economic cooperation, what good are the four principles? The same goes for the offer to install liaison offices in Seoul and Pyongyang. Liaison offices are needed when the two are getting along.
Pyongyang and Washington included the installation of liaison offices in the 1994 Framework Agreement, when the North Korean nuclear crisis was resolved and the two countries were in good moods. Pyongyang’s response to the latest proposal was predictable given how determined it is to condemn the South. If the Lee administration thought the offer was so important, then it was inappropriate to make it public via a single foreign media outlet. These pathetic shows are being staged because the administration lacks a big picture and makes impromptu responses.
It is truly hard to deal with the North, which thinks it has nothing to lose. Of course, the inter-Korean relationship will improve if we offer everything the North wants. However, that’s not the best way. It is frustrating to see North Korea committing military provocations when it is getting assistance from the South. Yet, it is still a country that needs humanitarian aid. Seoul has to alternate between taking a hard line and appeasement. And we will probably make a few missteps along the way. If we want to minimize the damage caused by our mistakes, we must draw a line that we can afford to concede and set firm principles within the line.
We need to contemplate how we should respond to the improvements in U.S.-North relations and a possible half-hearted suture for the nuclear issue. If our government continues to come up with outrageous plans such as expanding the Kaeseong Industrial Complex after the resolution of the nuclear crisis, the North Korean policy will descend into bigger chaos.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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