[Viewpoint] Speaking clearly to Pyongyang

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[Viewpoint] Speaking clearly to Pyongyang

‘Do sanctions against North Korea mean starting a war against it?” That was the symbolic question that represented the North Korean policy during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.

If Korea, the United States or the United Nations considered sanctions to punish North Korea for provocations such as attacks near the Northern Limit Line and nuclear experiments, key government officials always warned of a possible war.

However, it is quite confusing if you apply the question to the latest movements of North Korea. While Korea and the U.S have been imposing sanctions against North Korea for nearly a year, no aggressive moves have been made. There has not been a single shot fired, much less a war.

As the United States elevated pressure on the North, Pyongyang chose to release the American journalists detained in the North. Pyongyang used to make all kinds of insults and threats to the Lee Myung-bak administration, but suddenly it is acting as if it was never hostile to the South Korean government.

Of course, there is no need to unnecessarily provoke North Korea. For example, South Korean officials need not say that a labor union might be organized if a dormitory is built in the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and expansion of the complex will not happen unless the nuclear tension is resolved.

Such comments contain no realistic content while needlessly hurting Pyongyang’s pride.

Nevertheless, it is a naive and simple-minded dogma to argue that irritating Pyongyang would drive inter-Korean relations into the flames of war. That dogma says it was advocating “peace,” but it was in effect humiliation disguised as peace. Who among the citizens of the Republic of Korea buys the argument? The claim was merely a virus that caused internal discord and did no good for inter-Korean relations.

While Pyongyang has shifted to a more flexible attitude, we do not know its true intentions. However, the change of attitude at least proved that the equation of “sanctions equals war” was groundless. Certainly, a majority of citizens are relieved that this equation proved faulty.

Nonetheless, there are people who adhere to the myopic perspective. If Pyongyang threatens the South, they think it is the fault of the South Korean government. And when Pyongyang suddenly shows flexibility, they say that demonstrates brave decisions by North Korean leaders.

How can we resolve the internal differences on this issue? Seoul’s stance would be far more effective if Koreans had one voice over what North Korea is doing wrong.

The government needs to think harder. It deserves compliments for having consistently demanded changes from North Korea despite threats from Pyongyang and criticism from a certain corner of society.

However, the Lee administration should not be complacent. Officials need to speak more strategically. Minister of Unification Hyun In-taek had a point when he said Pyongyang’s changes are more tactical than fundamental.

However, it was an inappropriate comment from the unification minister who is in charge of the administration’s North Korean policy. There is no need to reveal the inner thoughts of the government.

Moreover, the government needs a strategy to pre-emptively engage the North. So far, North Korea typically challenges first, and then the South responds. We can now change the roles. We need to evolve from the hands-off attitude of waiting for Pyongyang’s actions.

Recently, President Lee Myung-bak called a foreign policy and security advisory meeting. The discussion included options that deviate from the current direction of the Lee administration, such as a proposal to take the lead on the North Korean issue since Washington and Beijing will not be able to concentrate their capacities on the Korean Peninsula.

If the government shows sincere interest to improve inter-Korean relations and reinforce communications with those who oppose the existing North Korean policy, internal discord will be resolved to a significant degree.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ahn Hee-chang
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