[Viewpoint]A NK policy full of holes

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[Viewpoint]A NK policy full of holes

In late September 1984, Korea suffered a great flood, and North Korea sent aid to the South. Rice, clothing materials and medicines were piled up at storage sites near Panmunjom. Reporters and intelligence officers disguised as reporters from the South and the North chatted with one another. The topics were mostly personal, such as family matters and jobs. However, after mingling for about eight hours from morning till afternoon, we had touched on some sensitive political subjects as well, which chilled the mood.

I was a rookie reporter at the time, and North Korea’s fake reporters approached me with a few questions. As we talked about where we originally came from, I let it slip that my parents were born in the North. Then they pressed me about where they were from. If I told them the name of the real hometown, it might cause problems, I thought. So I just told them they were from Bukcheong.

Six years later, I went to Pyongyang to cover high-level inter-Korean talks. After a dinner banquet, I was resting in a bus exclusively assigned to the press. A North Korean official approached me and asked “Mr. Ahn, you said your parents were from Bukcheong, but ...” He had investigated my background. It occurred to me that the North Korean system was very persistent.

The North Korean officials in charge of inter-Korean projects give the impression that they are experts on South Korea. Before coming to Panmunjom, they seem to have read all major South Korean publications. Once assigned to inter-Korean projects, the North Korean officials stay on the job for a long time. Ahn Gyeong-ho and Jeon Geum-jin, the main players on the North Korean side in inter-Korean dialogues, have been involved in the field for nearly 40 years.

When I covered the flood aid in 1984, I met many North Korean reporters who had covered the inter-Korean talks in the 1970s. Unlike the South, Pyongyang projects a comprehensive and systematic approach to inter-Korean relations.

Of course, the North Korean system does have flaws. If a certain official is exclusively handling inter-Korean issues, he might make the mistake of failing to see the forest for the trees. Moreover, Seoul cannot operate like Pyongyang since power changes hands periodically in the South.

Nevertheless, there is so little accumulated wisdom in Seoul’s approach to inter-Korean relations. When the administration changes, high-ranking foreign and security officials become nervous. No matter how knowledgeable they are about North Korea, they feel insecure if they are not aligned with the new power-holding party.

Most notably, Im Dong-won, who served as vice minister of unification under the Roh Tae-woo administration and had participated in high-level talks with the North, resigned when Kim Young-sam took office.

Now, the Lee Myung-bak administration is undermining the capacity of its North Korea policy. Even the Kim Dae-jung administration, which accomplished the first horizontal regime change in over three decades, did not shun officials who worked for past administrations.

Instead, President Kim Dae-jung’s choice of ambassador to the United States was Lee Hong-koo, who had served as the minister of unification under the Roh Tae-woo administration and was prime minister in the Kim Young-sam administration. For the post of minister of unification, the president appointed someone who did not share the government’s North Korea policy direction ? the hardliner Kang In-deok.

Kim Dae-jung made these appointments to supplement the weak points of his administration and reinforce foreign policy and security expertise at the same time.

However, the Lee Myung-bak administration does not seem to practice such forward-looking thinking. Without serious consideration, it proposed the abolition of the Ministry of Unification. It then reversed course after facing heavy criticism for the idea. But in the course of the controversy, the ministry became practically paralyzed.

Not appointing anyone who worked in the Blue House after 2007 is also absurd. There are experts who have specialized in policies on North Korea and the United States. It is understandable if high-ranking officials from the Roh Moo-hyun administration are not appointed to ministerial positions, but this should not apply to those who worked for them.

Who would want to work in the Blue House in an administration’s late days, when North Korea policy is bound to be weakened? Lately, the government and the ruling party are discussing ways to re-establish contact lines with the North. But a more urgent challenge is to employ North Korea experts in the government.

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