The faltering politics of face
The North Korean gunshot that killed a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang two weeks ago is a sober reminder of how far inter-Korean relations have deteriorated despite a decade of attempted reconciliation.
Although Seoul might announce as early as today the findings of its preliminary investigation into the incident, which took place on July 11, the North refuses to comply with Seoul’s request for a joint inquiry.
Even though the North has expressed regret over the incident, it has launched an offensive against its neighbor, demanding an apology from, and blaming, Seoul.
Some analysts believe this move is a calculated tactic to tame the current conservative administration in the South and set the tone for future inter-Korean relations.
“This is a classic attempt by the North to break in the Lee administration and demonstrate who is in charge,” said Yun Duk-min, a professor of politics at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
“For the short term at least, inter- Korean relations are going to be very cool because Pyongyang is likely to continue on this course.”
An earlier offer by Seoul to send corn aid to the North has been rejected, and the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, dismissed President Lee Myung-bak’s offer to resume bilateral discussions on food aid and economic cooperation as a “cheap trick.”
Nevertheless, the professor predicted that in the long term, Pyongyang would deviate from its current course and engage Seoul.
“The North has been squeezed on the food front for quite a while. Eventually, it will reopen dialogue with the South at the time of its choosing but it knows there is a time frame,” Yun said. While fierce debate rages over whether the shooting was planned or not, Yun dismissed the idea that the killing was pre-planned. “That’s a conspiracy theory ? to argue that the shooting would not have happened under the previous administration,” he said.
We may never know if Park’s death was premeditated or not, but most observers agree that the incident, and what happened afterwards, reflects the inner thoughts of the North’s ruling elite and its leader Kim Jong-il.
“What the leadership thinks the current inter Korean relations is well reflected by the action of the military because nothing goes on in the military without proper reporting through appropriate channels,” Koh said.
The North Korean specialist pointed out that when the two Koreas were on better terms, travel restrictions were more relaxed.
“You could talk with guides and guards. You could bend the rules slightly. There was a relaxed atmosphere. Now it’s about strengthening the rules,” said Koh.
President Lee punched his election ticket not only by playing on the economic woes that South Koreans are facing but also by vowing to implement a more conservative approach toward Pyongyang.
Conservative voters lapped up tough talk on the North, responding positively to Lee’s pledge that unconditional aid to the North would not happen on his watch.
Pyongyang’s response is wholly evident in its refusal to hold bilateral talks, accept food aid and reject calls for a joint investigation into Park’s death.
While observers might not agree on what course the Lee administration needs to stake out, the consensus is that the current administration’s lack of understanding and its aversion to Pyongyang have depleted the government of North Korean experts. Subsequently, the government’s policy on North Korea is nothing but a sideshow, they say.
A lack of a reliable sources on North Korea is also prevalent in professional intelligence organizations.
“For the last 10 years, we have halted direct intelligence-gathering operations on the North because government officials wanted to establish their own lines of communication with Pyongyang and cut out the intelligence services,” said a former official of the Defense Security Command speaking on condition of anonymity.
Adding further to the malaise is a natural dislike for anything that is even remotely connected to the previous administration.
While former President Roh followed in the footsteps of his predecessor former President Kim Dae-jung by adopting an engagement policy toward the North, analysts say President Lee’s approach to inter-Korean dialogue is viewed through the prism of a country-to-country approach.
Those who have dealt with Pyongyang on a regular basis say the Lee administration needs to resolve the current stalemate by demonstrating that it is willing to talk to Pyongyang not only to address the shooting but also to move forward and improve relations.
“We’ve dealt with more difficult situations in the past but the North knew we were sincere in trying to strike up a conversation so a channel for communication was available,” said former vice unification minister Rhee Bong-jo.
“If the current government has the will to talk, it can use Hyundai Asan [as a line of communication], but the message should not be just about getting an apology. A strict demand for an explanation and apology will lead nowhere,” Rhee said.
Drawing on his experience, Rhee said that pulling in experienced specialists would help. “It takes time to break the ice with the North Koreans so it would help to get a familiar face into any future talks,” he said.
In the past, Pyongyang’s self-serving attempts to come clean on its checkered past have backfired and it’s unlikely that the North’s leadership will do so again.
Kim Jong-il’s government admitted to the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens in 2002 after a summit meeting with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a bid to normalize relations.
Nevertheless, doubts over the identity of the remains of one of the abductees that the North returned to Japan have only further complicated relations between the two countries.
Other commentators say the current stalemate between Seoul and Pyongyang is due to a lack of readiness on Seoul’s part, which has put Lee’s administration in a reactive mode.
“You have to be proactive to gain the initiative, but to be proactive you have to have a game plan. That is not the case with the current administration,” said Kim Geun-sik, a political scientist at Kyungnam University.
He argued that South Korea’s demands are simply not acceptable to the North. “Pyongyang will never agree to a joint investigation. So why keep asking when you know you are not going to get one?” the professor said.
“During the Cold War, you could ignore the other side. You did your own thing and built the wall around you as high as you could. Nowadays, it’s about making concessions and offers that the other side can live with.”
Some analysts thought that the Lee administration should stay on its a country-to-country approach. “Long-term this will help because we need to have ground rules when dealing with Pyongyang. A lot of things can happen from visa issues to accidents,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korea Studies at Korea University.
What President Lee has offered the North is a plan centered on a “show-me-first” approach. Provided North Korea scraps its nuclear ambitions and progress is made in humanitarian areas, South Korea says it will help the North achieve an average $3,000 per capita income within 10 years.
But linking aid to the North with issues that need considerable time to resolve and are politically sensitive may not work. North Korea has ignored the offer while the current situation has hampered progress for such a grand plan.
Nevertheless, the current administration may be too entrenched to change its path. Past dealings with the North show a stark contrast between the past and present.
Under the Roh administration, when North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, aid to the North was suspended. But inter-Korean projects such as the Mount Kumgang tourist resort and the Kaesong Industrial Complex continued, even though Washington expressed its opposition to continue the projects.
In addition, Seoul turned down requests from its long-time ally to join the proliferation security initiative, a U.S.-led project to curb the transfer of weapons of mass destruction between countries.
South Korea’s patience looks like it might have run out now. The Mount Kumgang resort has been shut down indefinitely and Seoul has threatened to stop trips to Kaesong as well. The fallout over the killings has brought Hyundai Asan to the brink of collapse and put the North’s long-time confidante into a tight corner, which currently has no obvious exit point.
The company is also entangled in a blame game, facing criticism from the Blue House that it failed to install adequate safety measures.
According to Hahm Sung-deuk, a professor of public administration at Korea University, inter-Korean relations are also troubled by the lack of long-term strategic thinking.
“If you take a closer look, there is just no philosophy in the president’s policy toward Pyongyang other than saying things will be different than before,” said the professor. “It’s like a football team where everyone runs after the ball and doesn’t stick to their position.”
Caught in an ideological web, President Lee had little room left for senior North Korean experts when he appointed his cabinet and chief aides. The Unification Ministry, which barely survived when Lee set about trimming down the government for the start of his term of office, was assigned a career diplomat specializing in China as its head, and its chief aides and secretaries have little experience of dealing with Pyongyang.
Some analysts warn that the animosity toward Pyongyang felt by some in government should not lead to total isolation of the North. “Regardless of ideology, you have to have an expert on North Korea who can dissect issues and offer a clear view. There isn’t anyone in the administration right now who can do that,” said Kim Yong-ho, a political scientist at Inha University. During the previous administration, the former unification minister, Lee Jong-seok, was Seoul’s linkman with the North. An expert on the North, Lee was a former academic who believed you had to understand Pyongyang ideology to be able to engage the country at any level.
The continuation of the Sunshine Policy during the Roh administration secured Lee’s rise to prominence. But it is unlikely that an expert on North Korea will get this level of recognition in government again given the conservative ideology that binds the current administration.
While Seoul is contemplating how to resolve the crisis, Pyongyang is stonewalling. Yu Gil-jae, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, said that under the North’s political system, the silent treatment is no surprise.
“Pyongyang is concerned that it might lose an income source [from Kumgang and Kaesong tourism] but it won’t let the Lee administration push it around,” said the professor.
Yu added that domestic circumstances were influencing the Blue House’s response toward the North.
“President Lee is afraid that he might look weak. Domestic issues have chipped away at his approval ratings and even when he doesn’t have to, he tries to look strong,” he said.
The analysts also warned against complacency, saying that it would be a mistake to think that Pyongyang may have become addicted over the past decade to long-term aid from the South.
“Does North Korea need money? Yes, but it’s not enough to act as a leverage,” said Yu.
“It’s always about face first.”
By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]