[Viewpoint]A new approach to Pyongyang

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[Viewpoint]A new approach to Pyongyang

The state-run Korea Institute for National Unification has revised the North Korea policy of the Lee Myung-bak administration. The program was originally designed to provide assistance aimed at boosting the North’s gross national product per capita to $3,000 in return for the reclusive country’s denuclearization and opening.

The revision intends to present a new direction for inter-Korean cooperation. The institute has proposed that denuclearization, peace, opening, reform, integration and unification should all take place in parallel.

During the government’s first year, the inter-Korean freeze showed no signs of defrosting, so many wondered if the Lee administration would overhaul the basis of its approach toward North Korea.

The initial policy of supporting the North in increasing its per capita GNP to $3,000 in return for denuclearizing and opening up has been largely debated in South Korean society and rejected by the North. Therefore, the KINU’s proposal to revise the policy is appropriate.

The Lee administration’s current policy was proposed as an election pledge. It was likely effective in differentiating Lee’s North Korea policy from that of the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration.

In order to reduce the objections from Pyongyang, after Lee took office, he should have revised his North Korea policy by introducing pragmatism. Denuclearization is an international norm, but the North could have regarded the policy as an intervention in its domestic affairs. Pyongyang was also strongly skeptical of the policy, pegging it as the South trying to absorb the North in unification.

In order to resolve the North’s concerns, Seoul presented a North Korea policy of “Mutual Benefit and Common Prosperity” in Lee’s speech at the National Assembly on July 11, 2008. The original strategy was then no longer promoted on the surface, and it was treated by Seoul as something that had been put on the back burner.

If the government accepts the KINU’s revision proposal and fully adopts the pragmatic North Korea policy, a breakthrough in the deadlocked inter-Korean relations may be possible.

The Lee administration has failed to redefine its relationship with the North because Pyongyang has been upset that Seoul did not declare its commitment to implementing two inter-Korean agreements formed after the 2000 and 2007 summits, instead insisting on its new policy.

The North suspects that the Lee administration will push forward a hard-line policy toward Pyongyang with the goal of achieving the collapse of the North Korean regime and radical changes in the North. As such, it believes the denuclearization, opening, $3,000-a-year income idea of mutual prosperity as something that only exists on the surface.

Lee has said the North Korean issue is irrelevant to the economic crisis, claiming that “waiting is also a strategy.” Lee has demanded the North change its attitude first and has ignored Pyongyang.

It is true that waiting can be a strategy, but the Lee administration should have contemplated the outcome of the North-U.S. nuclear negotiations and postponed the creation of its North Korea policy.

Now is the right time to specify a new North Korea policy, in time with the launch of the Obama administration in the United States.

When the government changed in the South, negotiations between the North and the United States were progressing quickly with the aim of achieving some kind of result before the end of the Bush administration. The give-and-take plan of nuclear disablement in the North in return for the removal of Pyongyang from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror nearly came through in time.

And yet, South Korea tried to adjust its North Korea policy during this sensitive period, losing its initiative in resolving the nuclear crisis and worsening the inter-Korean conflict.

While China and Taiwan have engaged in mutual trade, maritime and air traffic and postal exchanges and tried to cooperate in resolving the economic crisis, the two Koreas have failed to find a link between the efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis and development of inter-Korean relations. The tie has been cut, and the two Koreas are just waiting for the Obama administration to launch.

North Korea has criticized the South for becoming an obstacle in the nuclear issue. The Mount Kumgang resort remains shut as the New Year approaches. Even from the point of view of the pragmatic policy on the North, this is a contradiction.

With the Obama administration set to come into power, this is the best time to reconsider Seoul’s policy on Pyongyang, as making a change under threat from the North is unacceptable. Through coordination with the Obama government’s working-level officials, Seoul must make sure that its North Korea policy will be in line with that of Washington.

While Seoul has insisted on its hard-line policy toward Pyongyang, Washington has removed the North from the terrorism blacklist and continued its energy and humanitarian support. Although the six-party talks failed to achieve a verification regime, Washington is continuing its efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis on the peninsula. Seoul must pay attention to that.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean affairs at Dongguk University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Koh Yu-hwan
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