Staying in the game

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Staying in the game

While denuclearization negotiations are moving ahead smoothly between Pyongyang and Washington, relations between South Korea and the North continue to regress. The Rodong Sinmun called the Lee Myung-bak administration a group of traitors and threatened to end inter-Korean relations.

So what went wrong? North Korea demanded that the Lee administration treat the North warmly, as the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations had done. The Lee government, however, made it clear that it wouldn’t pursue dialogue for dialogue’s sake, or dialogue for domestic political purposes.

North Korea had high expectations for the agreement that former President Roh and Kim Jong-il signed on Oct. 4, 2007. Under the deal, South Korea would provide aid worth more than 10 trillion won ($7 billion) aimed at encouraging economic and social development in the North.

But the Lee administration attached two conditions. First, the aid will be provided on the condition that North Korea gives up its nuclear development program. Second, South Korea would re-examine the economic feasibility of the agreement and get the consensus of the people.

The conditions were reasonable. Lee can’t follow through on an agreement that his predecessor made two months before the election without any adjustments or conditions. The problem is, however, since the Lee administration took office, government officials have made controversial remarks that upset the North.

Early this year, North Korea suggested, through unofficial channels, a meeting with Lee’s camp. The suggestion was turned down, which was no problem. But the news was leaked to the media, and that was a big mistake. While negotiations were underway to explore the possibility that Kim Yong-nam, the president of the Presidium of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, would attend Lee’s presidential inauguration, a government official reportedly leaked the fact that discussions were happening, which put an end to the talks. Meanwhile, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff made a pre-emptive attack remark and the unification minister said the Kaesong Industrial Complex wouldn’t be expanded unless the nuclear issue was resolved. These incidents upset North Korea pretty badly.

At the same time, the Blue House analyzed or confirmed information regarding Kim Jong-il’s incapacitation, adding fuel to the fire. President Lee suggested a summit meeting with North Korea while he was in Russia. The Rodong Sinmun condemned the South for speaking such sugar-coated words about dialogue, while hiding a dagger.

The June 15 declaration in 2000 presented a vision for reconciliation and cooperation between the South and the North. The Oct. 4 agreement in 2007 planned concrete projects to carry out the previous declaration. North Korea puts more weight on the Oct. 4 agreement for practical reasons. The country designated 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, as the beginning of its drive to become a strong and prosperous country. North Korea believes that, ideologically and militarily, it is ready to become such a nation, and now it is planning to focus on the economic sector. As such, projects mentioned in the Oct. 4 agreement are desperately needed, but the South Korean administration’s principles on providing aid ruined Pyongyang’s expectations.

What should happen now? First, North Korea must abandon its illusions. No matter how harshly it may criticize the South, it won’t be able to turn back the clock to the times of the Kim and Roh administrations. And South Korea’s presidential office and administration must be prudent when making remarks on North Korean issues.

During the National Assembly’s inspection of the administration, some South Korean lawmakers argued that the United States’ removal of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism sacrifices South Korea’s national security. But the decision is a big step forward in terms of the nuclear negotiations. The lawmakers should instead have questioned whether the U.S. is unintentionally breaking away from collective efforts to denuclearize the North.

Bush administration officials confirm that they won’t accept a nuclear North Korea. But they can’t say what the North is really thinking. As Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said, we are not in a position to scold the U.S. but we should be alert as to whether there are traps which were installed in the agreement without the U.S. knowing.

At the same time, we should improve inter-Korean relations. President Lee’s speech to inaugurate the National Assembly, which accepted both the June 15 declaration and the Oct. 4 agreement, can serve as a new pragmatic starting point.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie

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