[Viewpoint] Mistrust mires relations

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[Viewpoint] Mistrust mires relations

North Korea seems to have decided to drive down the road of appeasement. Throughout last year, the nation maintained a hard-line policy, test-firing a long-range rocket and conducting a nuclear test in the spring of this year. In response, the UN adopted a stern resolution and issued a series of sanctions that even China, a long-term ally of the North, appears to be supporting.

None of these measures prevented Pyongyang from ordering more missiles, and the July 4 Independence Day holiday in the United States was welcomed in the North with missiles falling into the East Sea. North Korea went on to declare that it would never return to the six-nation talks, and tensions on the peninsula escalated.

But in the last four weeks or so, the North seems to have checked which way the wind is blowing and altered course. On Aug. 4, former U.S. President Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang and returned with the two American journalists who had been jailed. The United States had to pay nothing in advance, and the sanctions remained in place. It was a surprise, and many in South Korea wondered if Seoul was being sidestepped while Pyongyang directly dealt with Washington.

The North then turned its attentions to the South. On Aug. 10, Hyundai Asan chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun went to North Korea and a South Korean worker detained in Kaesong was released three days later. On Aug. 16, Hyun met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and a five-point agreement including the reunions of separated families for the Chuseok holidays was announced on Aug. 17.

On Aug. 20, the North scrapped its Dec. 1 measures, which largely restricted cross-border exchanges between the two Koreas, and a North Korean delegation arrived in the South on Aug. 21 to express its condolences over the death of former President Kim Dae-jung.

The delegates did not just deliver a bouquet of flowers. They extended their trip and visited the Blue House and met with President Lee. On Aug. 26, the two Koreas held Red Cross talks even though joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises were ongoing. And then on Aug. 29, four fishermen detained in the North for crossing the maritime border were released.

Blue House fears that the North is trying to sidestep South Korea and deal directly with Washington have been allayed for now. Pyongyang seems to be approaching Seoul and Washington equally, perhaps even putting more importance on the South. Shortly after Hyun visited the North, observers worried that the North may only deal with the private sectors of the South, while snubbing the government. That, however, has been proven wrong.

In addition, the Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s main newspaper, made public on Aug. 29 the North’s intention to have government-level talks, noting that “in order to implement joint inter-Korean agreements, there are no differences between the government and the private sector.”

The Lee administration is acting cautiously in the face of this barrage of appeasement gestures from the North, aware that there are many reasons and motives behind the North’s change of tactic. The Lee administration wants to be distinguished from the last government and it has to tread carefully lest it upset conservative forces at home.

And the international community has pushed for sanctions on the North, so the South cannot suddenly reconcile with the North and act as if they are now best buddies.

The crux of the problem, though, is whether or not North Korea really wants to improve inter-Korean relations. Is it a tactic to stir up trouble among South Koreans? Are they trying to shake up the Lee administration’s North Korea policy? Is it a disguised move to dodge sanctions or receive aid?

Understandably, South Korean officials are probably feeling confused. That is why the South insisted that the North make clear its intention to give up nuclear arms programs if it really wants to reconcile with the South.

And yet, can we trust the North if it says it will give up its nuclear programs? Can we trust the North if it begins the denuclearization process?

Sadly, North Korea, no matter what happens, cannot be trusted. It is not a good regime by international standards, nor is it a normal state. We can never trust the North, and the Lee administration’s North Korea policy must start based on that realization. It is a game with a distrustful partner. Therefore, the position that dialogue is only possible based on trust is unrealistic and ineffective. In the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time, unveiled his perestroika policy and proposed disarmament talks, it was natural for Western leaders to question his truthfulness.

At the time, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and said trust had to be based on verification. Such an active policy eventually brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Of course, we want to “trust, but verify” with the North, but the North is unlike other states. It is undesirable, but there is no other way. And it is unlikely that North Korea, an isolated nation and inferior to the South, will easily give up its nuclear arms.

Therefore, we have to start working. Instead of waiting, we must prepare to be active in September. Inter-Korean talks must continue, but we must always question the North’s true intention. We may block the North and prompt it to directly contact the United States by hesitating to engage in dialogue because of our concerns about the trust issue.

Inter-Korean relations have been stalled since the Lee administration took office in early 2008, and now the government’s North Korea policy faces a real test, one that could well define the Lee presidency.

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

by Jo Dong-ho

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