[Overseas view]Too good to refuse?Things for the South Korean government don’t seem to be so good at the moment. A record loss of trust, triggered by snowballing protests on a rather minor policy field ? the infamous beef issue ? led to the mass resignation of Blue House staff as well as the first cabinet reshuffle.
But in other policy areas the government also seems to have gained no ground, for example its North Korea policy.
North Korea continuously snubs all offers for cooperation and even when South Korea almost begged to be allowed to send food aid to the North, which once again is on the brink of famine, the North declined, citing its discontent with President Lee Myung Bak’s government.
For the North, the United States has become a handy substitute to the aid given by the previous two South Korean administrations, leading to fears that South Korea may become isolated.
However, some more patience and less pressure for immediate rewards would be good advice for Lee, not only regarding other economic policies, but also regarding North Korea policy.
Take, for example, President Lee’s “Denuclearization-Opening-$3,000” pledge for the North.
This has been much criticized and even ridiculed by experts, predictably by those with close ties to the previous administration.
First, they argue, it is unrealistic, given the state of the North Korean economy. Second, without cooperation from the North it could not be achieved anyway.
The critics maintain the mantra of the two previous administrations, that rapprochement means not raising any issues that might irk the North: Quite simply, denuclearization and rapprochement can not be pursued simultaneously.
Surprisingly, North Korea itself made the offer public in the North, but immediately added derogatory comments on the true nature of the Lee Myung-bak administration.
Nevertheless, the publication of the offer was quite unexpected.
The current average income of North Koreans is just $1 or $2 per month, according to market rates. This is due to the astronomical depreciation of the domestic currency, which now trades at as much as 3,000 won or more per dollar.
Even the most optimistic valuation of the real income, taking into account purchasing power parities rather than market rates, would mean that the current level is maybe one fourth of the $3,000-level Lee Myung-bak is offering to the North.
Therefore, $3,000 seems an almost impossibly attractive offer ?? either typical propaganda that people in North Korea are so used to, or an offer by an incredibly rich country, by the standards of North Koreans.
By now, most people know that South Korea is not the impoverished country the North Korean propaganda machine often touted, but rather the rich brother. At least rapprochement in the last few years conveyed a clearer picture of reality to ordinary citizens in North Korea.
People quickly began to talk about the “$3,000 per capita” offer. So much in fact, that the party had to finally intervene. But this cannot stop gossip and amazement.
Even some foreign diplomats in North Korea thought that the publication of the offer was some ingenious North Korean move to prepare the ground for renewed cooperation with South Korea.
This seems far-fetched, but one thing is clear: North Koreans see South Korea now in a totally different light than their propaganda wants them to see it, namely, more than ever, as a cure to an ailing economy on the brink of famine.
And so, denuclearization and rapprochement, or opening, might suddenly no longer be two competing concepts, but rather a virtuous circle: By making the North such an irresistible offer, it either has to kill off its people’s hope or else accept.
Nobody is in a better position to make such an offer than the Lee Myung-bak government, since it is firmly grounded in its alliance with the United States and therefore not likely to be accused of blindness vis-a-vis the nature of North Korea’s political system.
This might sound astonishing given the conventional wisdom that only the previous left-wing governments could successfully bring “sunshine” to the Korean Peninsula.
But, incidentally, it is confirmed by a historic parallel.
When West German Helmut Kohl’s conservative government took power in 1982, many saw it as the end of the peaceful coexistence or “Ostpolitik” of the previous left-wing governments.
However, in reality, the Kohl government, through large government-backed credit offers to East Germany, made an irresistible offer that ultimately led to greater interdependence with the West and contributed to later unification. So, more patience seems to be warranted.
The Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German NGO which I represent, has been active in Korea for more than 20 years in cooperation with Korean partners like the Institute for Peace Affairs for reconciliation and, ultimately, unification of Korea. It has been a long time, but historically is but a short moment.
The Lee Myung-bak administration hasn’t been in power for that long. Give it more time to see if the irresistible offer works.
*The writer is the Resident Representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
By Bernhard Seliger