Signs from the NorthHyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun visited North Korea yesterday. It is anticipated that her visit will result in the release of a Hyundai Asan worker who has been detained there for 134 days, as well as a resumption of tourism to Mount Kumgang. Speculation about the worker’s release has grown with news of the possibility that Hyun will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. We hope this will improve inter-Korean relations, which have deteriorated since the Lee Myung-bak administration took office.
However, North Korea’s intentions are still unknown. Pyongyang wants to improve its relations with Washington after its release of two American journalists, but the continued detention of Yoo could hinder its plans. Yoo’s detention does nothing to improve the North’s image, as evidenced by former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s mention of the issue on his recent trip to Pyongyang. Therefore, it is expected that North Korea will release Yoo, but cling to its hard-line policy against South Korea. In that case, there would be no need for South Korea to abandon its current North Korea policy.
It would be different, however, if North Korea were to take a more flexible stance on inter-Korean relations. For instance, if the North were to refrain from condemning the South and took a serious approach to resolving the incident involving the shooting death of a South Korean woman at Mount Kumgang, the South would be able to respond in kind. Resumption of tourism at the Northern mountain resort would increase cash flow to the North. This could in turn offset the effects of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United States and the international community, which are aimed at punishing the North for its recent nuclear test. South Korea can respond to the extent that inter-Korean relations improve, but no more. Therefore, both South and North Korea need to have a better understanding of the impact of their actions on future relations.
North Korea should abandon its strategy of threatening South Korea, as it has done for the past 18 months. We hope that the North realizes that the South is not so weak as to succumb to such threats. To prove that it is abandoning its strategy, North Korea must release Yoo immediately. It must not try to avoid responsibility for the incident involving the South Korean tourist, and it must demonstrate a sincere desire to resolve the issue.
South Korea must try to be as open as possible and do its best to improve upon the friendly atmosphere created by Chairwoman Hyun’s visit. It is even more important to do so because former President Clinton’s visit signals that relations between Washington and Pyongyang are soon likely to thaw.