[Viewpoint] The rewards of acting toughNot long ago, a high-level delegation from North Korea flew into Seoul to attend the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung. They extended their stay to meet with President Lee Myung-bak. This was no small matter. The delegates arrived in Seoul on the invitation of nongovernment funeral organizers without going through the normally necessary red tape. On arrival, they claimed their status as special envoys carrying a verbal message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and requested a meeting with President Lee.
North Koreans clearly assumed our officials would wink at their disregard for procedures and jump at the chance of the first government-level meeting with the current administration. But our government did neither. It subtly balked and later coolly indulged the visit without offering anything substantial.
The scene would have been entirely different under the previous administrations of the late Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Back then, North Korea had all of their wishes entertained. The latest visit shows that Seoul officials have finally triumphed over the fear of nixing the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of previous governments, a legacy of ever-engaging and trying to accommodate the North.
Many thought the wintry inter-Korean relations were here to stay after Lee said he would pursue a more hard-line approach with Pyongyang after taking office early last year. North Korea customarily fires off a bellicose statement whenever a new South Korean government is sworn in, and there was no exception for the liberal Pyongyang-friendly governments of the last decade.
The strategy is common among Communist nations. Although dishonorable and insolent, the strategy has often proved effective. The initial armistice negotiations to cease the Korean War (1950-1953) were held in Kaesong in North Korea at the request of the Chinese army in order to gain the upper hand in talks. The atmosphere was so menacing that the UN allies walked out and held subsequent talks in the Panmunjeom border area.
And now the North has stepped up its offensive against the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration largely because of Lee’s policies - declaring that no economic aid would be given unless North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program.
Of course, North Korea is resentful, having to adjust to Lee’s new tactics and now aware that it won’t get anything for nothing.
For Lee, the problem has been that there are people in our society who support the idea of engaging the North, forcing him to either weather a hostile climate in pursuit of his beliefs or suffer the ignominy of backtracking.
At times, Lee looks as if he is wavering, but he has recovered and has remained consistent. And he’s been lucky. The North tried its usual defiant ways as soon as U.S. President Barack Obama took office, shunning the latter’s friendly gestures.
But to win favor with Washington, the North has now softened and extended a hand over the table, to Seoul, too. If President Lee had staggered and not held firm, he would have missed this opportunity. His persistence with North Korea is worthy of commendation and our support.
Our government is now finished with the engagement policy and must find a new position on the diplomatic stage. Few people are aware that the Sunshine Policy had its roots in the conservative Kim Young-sam administration. Former President Kim pronounced “there is nothing we cannot untangle when we focus on our national conscience.” He backed off from that stance when the North ignored his attempts to reach out. The question is, what will President Lee’s next step be, now that the wind has changed to a more favorable direction?
An accommodating policy often fails because it goes against disciplinary principle. Both carrot and stick have proven effective when wielded appropriately. But it’s a mistake if the person trying to be more conciliatory in the hope the opponent will soften presents the carrot first, and too promptly. From the opponent’s view, the reward has been given despite its bellicosity and therefore it feels emboldened to step up its offensive to gain more.
The conciliatory gestures feed and harden belligerence. In fact, the two biggest postwar naval skirmishes took place after President Kim Dae-jung launched the Sunshine Policy. The incumbent administration has not yet experienced any serious provocation from the North, if you accept that the missile launches and nuclear tests posed no immediate threat to Koreans or anyone else.
So the path for President Lee is clear. He must balk at offering the carrot unless the North behaves. If he doesn’t falter in this principle, he will succeed.
*The writer is a novelist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Bok Koh-ill