[Outlook]Pyongyang pressure

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[Outlook]Pyongyang pressure

The hysterical response of North Korea to change in South Korea is manifest in its recent actions.

The first was after the Lee Myung-bak administration took office. The new government made a move to shut down the Unification Ministry and to appoint as unification minister a figure known for his hardline stance toward North Korea, although he later failed to take the position.

The designated chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the unification minister made indiscreet remarks about North Korea. In April, the North began in earnest to condemn the Lee administration. Pyongyang seemed to conclude that Lee had no intention of honoring the Oct. 4, 2007 agreement signed by former President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il. Under the deal, the South would fix roads and railways, build a ship-building complex and develop the North’s west coast area with Haeju at its center.

But President Lee made it clear that the South would only be providing aid if Pyongyang would give up its nuclear ambitions; if Seoul has the financial capacity to offer help; if proposed projects are seen as feasible; and if the South Korean public supports giving the aid.

The second instance was when some human rights organizations in South Korea dropped propaganda leaflets over the border and Seoul joined a United Nations resolution condemning North Korean human rights violations.

Pyongyang may think the South Korean government would be able to effectively stop civic organizations if it wanted to. The North likely doesn’t understand that the South Korean administration doesn’t have the legal means to do so, and would find it difficult to grasp that there are civic organizations here that don’t always listen to what the administration says. It would have looked good if the South Korean government immediately released a statement asking civic organizations to refrain from the leafleting. But President Lee was worried about the Korean version of American neoconservatives.

As for the UN resolution, North Korea probably interpreted the situation to mean that the good relations it had enjoyed over the past 10 years were coming to an abrupt end. South Korea had previously abstained from all UN resolutions on North Korea’s human rights. The Lee administration, however, went beyond simply supporting it and jointly introduced the resolution.

North Korea is doing all it can to pressure the South. And it will come up with more ways to do so. The North announced it will cut off the military hotline at Panmunjom and tighten control of land crossings over military lines near the tourist sites at Mount Kumgang and Kaesong.

The announcement can only serve to worsen already tense inter-Korean relations. Looking at the situation more closely, though, these measures are symbolic but don’t exactly deliver a direct blow to the Lee administration. Those who suffer instead are South Korean companies in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, their partner companies and hotels and restaurants in Goseong-gun, Gangwon.

As North Korea proceeded with its series of provocative acts, President Lee said that sometimes just waiting can be a good strategy. His unexpectedly lukewarm response probably upset the North Korean leaders even more, and now they are probably pondering more serious measures.

Lee’s words make sense in a way. Now a new phase of denuclearization talks are about to open and relations are improving between the North and the United States. When visiting the U.S. and meeting Barack Obama, President Lee must go with an open mind. Obama has a warm and open heart and cares about minority groups and the underprivileged. His diplomacy and national security teams have concrete interests in North Korea. Even when he was running for the presidency, Obama revealed that he intended to have talks with Kim Jong-il. If Kim’s physical condition permits, U.S.-North Korea relations can improve to the extent that Obama might visit the North and the two countries normalize ties.

North Korea refuses soil sample collections, but such problems were expected from the beginning, when the U.S. and North Korea made an agreement on verification. North Korea probably intended to use this card for leverage when negotiating with the Obama administration. If we cling to our wait-and-see strategy for too long, we will probably have to pay the cost of implementing agreements between the North and the U.S. which don’t sufficiently reflect our interests.

President Lee must understand the scale of changes in the world that the launch of the Obama administration portends. We need not worry about a possibility that the U.S. and the North will get closer, isolating the South. Instead, we should be worried about the possibility that we might miss opportunities.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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