North getting ahead of itself

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North getting ahead of itself

Highlighting a recent string of cordial and sociable gestures, North Korea has decided promptly to send a special delegation to pay tribute to former President Kim Dae-jung a day after the champion of democracy and engagement with the North died of multiple organ failure.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who held the first-ever inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang with the late Kim in 2000, faxed a letter via a semi-government agency informing the South of a visit by high-level party officials. Pyongyang, which stopped at sending a letter of condolence following the earlier death of former President Roh Moo-hyun, appears to be going out of its way to pay respects to the late President Kim, who spent his entire term improving relations between the two Koreas.

The government said it will approve the visit, allowing high-level North Korean officials into Seoul for the first time since the Lee Myung-bak administration began last year.

The news accentuates a series of conciliatory gestures from the North. After releasing an employee of Hyundai Asan, the North has agreed to resume inter-Korean private-sector activities such as tourism programs and meetings among separated families following Hyundai Group head Hyun Jeong-eun’s meeting with Kim Jong-il over the weekend. The delegation’s visit, which may last one or two days, is expected to help further ameliorate bilateral relations.

But the North still remains reluctant to improve ties on a government level. The delegation has been organized without prior consultation with the South Korean government. If it is serious about changing course, the North should do so in the proper way - between governments. If it continues to seek to fix ties on a private level while keeping the government at bay, its gestures may appear as an attempt to sow dissent in the South rather than to improve ties. The late Kim also repeatedly stressed that all inter-Korean issues should be addressed and resolved through government channels. The Unification Ministry has also many times called for the restoration of inter-Korean dialogue to proceed with humanitarian efforts such as meetings among separated families.

If North Korea is sincere about better ties with the South, it must say so clearly. Before resuming tourism programs at Mount Kumgang, the North must first apologize for the shooting incident, allow an investigation and assure the safety of tourists. The tour program cannot be reopened just on the promise of “convenience and safety measures” for tourists from Kim Jong-il during his meeting with Hyun. The government must step in to negotiate and gain safety guarantees from North Korean officials for South Korean tourists. The same goes for the tourism program in Kaesong. And ultimately, bilateral ties can never move forward unless the North gives up its nuclear weapons program.
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