[Viewpoint]Making sense of the North

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[Viewpoint]Making sense of the North

North Korea’s Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il chose to visit a military base on his first public appearance of 2009, something he has not done since 1995.

For Kim, the year 1994 was probably a nightmare. At the time, the North faced an economic crisis due to natural disasters and the earlier collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe.

Amid the crisis, Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father, suddenly died. It is not difficult to imagine the seriousness of the shock. North Korea calls 1994 “the year of bloody tears.”

Kim Jong-il visited the Dabaksol Unit of the Korean People’s Army on the first day of 1995. He chose a military base because he wanted to overcome the crisis his regime faced with a “military first” policy.

So why did Kim schedule a similar visit 14 years later? The answer can be found in North Korea’s New Year address for 2009. In the statement, it is easy to detect the North’s desperation, hinting that the current situation is as tough as 1994.

For example, what Kim told senior members of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee on Jan. 1, 1995 largely overlaps with the North’s New Year message for 2009.

Both emphasized the importance of the Kangson Steel Mill, the birthplace of the Chollima Movement, a state-sponsored economic development mechanism promoting the maximum utilization of resources.

Second, the two are similar because they both emphasized that people must be fed adequately through productive farming.

It is also the first time since 1995 that the North’s New Year joint editorial said the military should help the people.

Totalitarianism and self-reliance are both characteristics of the North Korean regime. But it is also the first time since 1997 that the North described such methods as its “unique form of revolution.”

Aid from the South has been suspended, and it will take time to receive benefits from improving relations with the United States. The North is making an appeal to its people that they survive on their own until assistance arrives.

No matter how bad the situation is, Pyongyang will never make a gesture of reconciliation toward Seoul. Instead, it chose to rant at the South Korean administration.

And yet, some parts hint that it wants to improve relations with the South. While it severely criticized the South Korean government, it did not single out President Lee Myoung-bak for any personal attacks, as in the past.

“We must fill the Korean Peninsula with the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation,” the editorial said. Such an expression can be seen as an expression of the North’s desire for better relations.

Most of all, the North has decided to lay bare its difficult economic situation by emphasizing the 1956 Chollima Movement in the 21st century. This can be an indirect message asking for help. The North could be asking the South to make its own judgment on whether help is needed.

Of course, the North’s basic South Korea policy of criticizing the Lee administration has not changed. That is why Seoul, particularly Lee, is maintaining a hard-line stance.

“I will not handle inter-Korean relations hastily. I want to resolve issues from a long-term perspective,” Lee has said. And he has a point, when we think about the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s practice of appeasing the North and providing unconditional aid.

And yet, Seoul must have a strategy, even if it is to wait and see. If Seoul has made up its mind that it will take no action until Pyongyang truly shows change, such as ending propaganda to encourage division within South Korean society, there is nothing more to say.

But Seoul probably has a goal, so it is important to search for various ways to achieve that goal. And Seoul should make some proposals to Pyongyang to this end. There is no way that the goal will be achieved automatically with the passage of time.

Since its early days, the Lee administration has emphasized that it wants to resolve issues associated with South Korean prisoners of war still alive in the North and families separated between the two Koreas. So what is its plan to realize the goal?

Until now, the government said its principles will remain firm, while its approaches will be flexible. In his inauguration speech, Lee said he will resolve inter-Korean relations “not with ideology but with pragmatism.”

This year, such a promise should be realized.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ahn Hee-chang
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