[Outlook] Turning North Korea

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[Outlook] Turning North Korea

It happened while I was attending the first defense ministers’ meeting between South and North Korea in September 2000 as a journalist. A Lieutenant General, let’s call him Kang, was to greet Kim Il-chol, the vice marshal of the North Korean People’s Army, at Panmunjom, and he took his son’s mobile phone for the day.

He thought his son’s phone would be more helpful in case of an emergency because it worked better than his own. Kang seated Kim in the car, which was heading for the Seongnam Airport.

On the way there, Kang’s phone rang. It was his son’s girlfriend. She demanded to know who was speaking, asking, “Who is this? Why are you answering my friend’s phone?”

Kang hurriedly cut the conversation short and said to Kim, “It is very hard to bring up children in South Korea,” to which Kim immediately replied, “It’s the same in North Korea.”

Meanwhile, the accompanying North Korean officers, who were around the same age as Kim’s son, were traveling by bus. They were lined up in the aisle seats on the left side of the bus, forming a straight line. This was done as a display of their will to not look at the 63 Building or the prosperous southern Seoul streets of Gangnam that the South Korean officers wanted them to see.

However, when they alighted at the airport, each wore an expression revealing a complex mixture of feelings.

I still can’t get their expressions out of my mind, even to this day, but words cannot describe them fully. It was like a poor child visiting the home of a rich friend. Though the poor child’s mother tells him not to feel small, he is stunned upon seeing the toys at his friend’s house and he feels ashamed, his steps heavy, as he makes the trip back home.

It is possible the officers felt like that child. Though I was aware that North Korea issues couldn’t be resolved with a sentimental approach, I still couldn’t shake the emotions of that day for a long time.

Kim Jong-il’s regime in North Korea is chaining itself to its own past. When North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006, I thought the six-party talks would come to an end. But three months later, the United States and North Korea met in Berlin and on Feb. 13 of the following year further agreements related to the inspection of nuclear facilities in North Korea were made. In August, when the North failed to allow the disablement of its nuclear facilities to be verified, the United States delayed in removing the communist state from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea immediately responded with threats, saying it would restart its nuclear facilities.

Then came the inauguration of the Barack Obama administration and its stated intent to meet with Kim Jong-il, and the world has begun to predict progress in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

But North Korea recently proceeded with its rocket launch in an attempt to take the upper hand in negotiations. After repeated, successful actions, North Korea’s brinkmanship has been promoted as a verifiable strategy.

However, I believe that it is time to help North Korea break away from the past. It is time for us to make a decision on whether we will stick to our principles or accept North Korea’s demands.

The situation will worsen if the gap between what North Korea demands and what South Korea and the West can accept widens. As Kim’s health is in question, he will certainly demand the regime of his successor be guaranteed.

There is still one thing to remember. North Korea may prefer to have contact with the United States, but that doesn’t mean we should let the U.S. handle inter-Korean issues. An Obama staff member asked how many Americans would support the idea of giving the North aid with the economy in turmoil as it is now.

A Washington-based Korean Peninsula expert said that as there is no hotline between South and North Korea, only China’s influence has grown. But it will always be up to us to bring about change in North Korea.

*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jung-wook
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