[Viewpoint] Lee plan needs another plank

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[Viewpoint] Lee plan needs another plank

In his speech celebrating Liberation Day, President Lee Myung-bak presented a new vision for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The vision can be seen as a blueprint outlining ways to implement his earlier vision titled “Denuclearization, Openness, 3000.”

In the president’s new view, change on the Korean Peninsula, including North Korea’s second nuclear test, is taken into consideration. The key idea of linking North Korea’s denuclearization to improvement in inter-Korean relations remains unchanged. If and when North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions, South Korea will offer generous incentives. The new vision includes the president’s suggestion for reducing conventional arms. In general, the major principles of our North Korea policy have been underscored once again. However, it is hard to expect North Korea to quickly embrace Lee’s views, because they do not offer bold incentives.

The new vision for peaceful reunification is a more concrete version of “Denuclearization, Openness, 3000.” The major points now being made by the president are to conduct a program in concert with the international community to help restore North Korea’s economy and to undertake five development projects there. Creating a high-ranking agreement to realize a common economic bloc of the South and the North has been included. The new vision seems to have ruled out the “openness” part from the old version, to become simply “Denuclearization, 3000.” Considering North Korea’s natural reluctance, the vision might be easier for the communist country to accept.

The “3000” part has changed into the “five development projects.” It is good that President Lee suggested reducing armaments, because inter-Korean relations are strained, North Korean issues face a stalemate and the incumbent South Korean administration is conservative. Even though it is doubtful that the suggestion will be realized right away, it is nonetheless meaningful to make the suggestion.

In doing so, President Lee has stuck to the basis of his North Korea policy. As he must pay heed to conservatives, Lee can be viewed as a reliable leader by being consistent instead of wavering in his policy. With such conservative beginnings, it is possible to later make more dramatic suggestions. United States President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was important to so many because the conservative Republican administration took a future-oriented China policy. That reassured Americans.

It is also worth paying attention to the fact that the suggestions President Lee made in his speech are quite similar to incentives Washington offered to North Korea. North Korea will perhaps examine how similar these suggestions actually are. If North Korea and the United States have more talks on the latter’s incentives, the new vision for peaceful reunification will become more meaningful.

The ball is now in North Korea’s court. North Korea will likely conclude that the new vision is not much different from the Lee administration’s old North Korea policy because the precondition of denuclearization has not changed. North Korea will thus likely respond the same way it criticized the Denuclearization, Openness, 3000 policy. Since North Korea maintains that security of its regime must be guaranteed first before it denuclearizes, it is unlikely to agree with President Lee’s strategy of improving inter-Korean ties on the basis of the North’s denuclearization. Since Lee did not mention implementing the June 15 Joint Declaration and the Oct. 4 declaration made by the leaders of South and North Korea, Pyongyang will perhaps question the sincerity of the new vision. On Monday the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States began. Because of this, North Korea may judge that our administration has not changed a great deal.

North Korea seems to regard inter-Korean relations as subordinate to North Korea-U.S. relations. North Korea’s strategy is to handle Pyongyang-Washington relations first and then sort out its relations with the South. Because of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang, U.S.-North Korea relations are changing slowly from stone-cold to thawing, based on the interests of both sides. On the other hand, inter-Korean ties are still frayed.

The imbalance will cause problems. As inter-Korean relations fail to keep up with the speed at which U.S.-North Korean ties change, it is hard for us to create leverage against North Korea. That means we are losing our say on issues that concern the Korean Peninsula. It is thus urgent to change the current structure so that inter-Korean relations improve along with U.S.-North Korea ties.

For this, President Lee’s new vision for peaceful reunification must include something that can persuade North Korea to agree. It is too passive if we only sit and wait for inter-Korean relations to improve. The president and the government must send a pre-emptive message that would help induce agreement from North Korea.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

by Kim Yong-hyun
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