Finding a balanceSpeculation about Kim Jong-il’s health has grown since he skipped the most recent military inspection, the highlight of celebrations for the North Korean government’s 60th birthday. As of Thursday, sources say Kim had a stroke but he is in recovery and maintains power in the reclusive nation. Kim is still alive and well as a leader.
But what does this situation tell us? It is time to sit down and think seriously about it.
Why is the world paying attention to Kim’s heath? The world wants to know how long North Korea will survive on the brink of collapse.
And yet, there will not be a definite answer to this question. Unless Kim is out of power, no outlook can be confirmed for sure.
With the confirmation that Kim is ill, the North’s power elite will see some changes. The nation will gear up for the post-Kim Jong-il regime. Efforts to hand power to one of Kim’s sons could be substantial.
If Kim’s health bars him from keeping up a busy schedule, a group leadership system formed by the core elites from the Workers’ Party and the military may take over.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000, the National Defense Commission has replaced ministers and vice ministers in the cabinet on its own, demonstrating its power.
If such changes proceed smoothly, it will be fortunate for the South, but if not, the South must be ready to deal with the fallout from possible conflict in the North.
The short-term outlook for the nuclear issue and the six-nation talks is also key, and there is a relatively clear answer. The deadlocked nuclear negotiations will unlikely move forward until the U.S. presidential election is over and the new administration settles down in the first half of next year.
North Korea has already begun restoring its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, halting the process of disarmament.
Furthermore, there are concerns that the North will take a hard-line stance toward the United States, which will be a large step backwards. Concerns grow that the North may fire a missile, prepare for plutonium reprocessing or actually begin reprocessing. If that happens, the Korean Peninsula will face extreme turmoil, once again.
The most important question is how South Korea will react to the changes in the North and if Seoul is ready for such a situation.
The South is split over how to deal with the North. It cannot agree on engagement or taking a hard line. Many argue that engagement with Pyongyang by the liberal administrations moved back the clock by a decade. Given such circumstances, the South is restless about the North.
A wide range of policies such as a plan to reinforce cooperation with the United States and a plan to support the North’s soft landing have been implemented, but nothing has resulted in permanent peace on the peninsula nor presented a vision for unification.
For the past several decades, Seoul’s policies on unification, North Korea, foreign affairs and security have been inconsistent. At least the South has learned the lesson that nothing can be overlooked.
Achieving permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula and a vision for unification can not happen quickly. The key to success is finding a principle that can be consistently implemented over the long term. Finding a balance between engagement and a hard-line stance and winning a majority of the people’s support are also a must.
It is clear that this can never be achieved by a person who is obsessed with ideology or whose party’s political interests come first.
Kim Jong-il’s North Korea is a North Korea of crisis. We are living next to the North, and crisis has become a part of everyday life. Crisis in a neighboring country is potentially a crisis for us as well. Furthermore, the North is not just a neighbor. It is a nation of Koreans, who share the same blood lines and speak the same language that we do.
Over two generations, the South and the North have lived in completely different worlds, and it is hard to understand each other at this point. However, there is no way for us to abandon this land and move some place else.
For South Koreans, North Korea and the crises that come with it, are part of our destiny.
* The writer is the head of the Institute for Reunification Affairs of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin