[Viewpoint] The minister is the messageNow we have a vague idea of the identity of President Lee Myung-bak’s Mr. X - the negotiator who met with Kim Yang-gon, director of the Workers Party’s Unification Front Department in North Korea, in a confidential meeting in Singapore last month.
It is widely believed in political circles that it was Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee. While Minister Yim denies that he met with the North Korean official, he did, in fact, visit Singapore while Kim was staying there as well.
Since Kim Jong-il’s “brain” came as a contact, Pyongyang must have expected an inter-Korean summit meeting.
As I traced the course of the contact, I was quite surprised. The power dynamics between Seoul and Pyongyang seem to have shifted.
During the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, Pyongyang had the whip hand. They set the protocols and defined the agenda. However, this time, it was different.
When Kim Yang-gon visited Seoul with a delegation to mourn the death of Kim Dae-jung in August, he seemed to have been quite puzzled. He faced a hard-line position from Seoul when he met with President Lee and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek.
Those familiar with that meeting say President Lee’s approval rating would rise if his remarks there were made public.
According to a recent visitor to North Korea, the delegates reportedly said that they were greatly embarrassed. However, Pyongyang still has been gauging Seoul for an inter-Korean summit meeting.
The previous two summit meetings -in 2000 and 2007 - were both made possible only at Seoul’s suggestion.
And this time, North Korea broke its routine in contacting the South. Preparations for the first summit meeting went through the South’s Minister of Culture and Tourism Park Jie-won and the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee Vice Chairman Song Ho-gyong. Song’s position was a notch below the ministerial level.
The working-level preparations were then passed on to the Director of the National Intelligence Service Lim Dong-won and North Korean Unification Front Department head Kim Yong-sun.
The second summit meeting in 2007 was the fruit of work between NIS director Kim Man-bok and Kim Yang-gon.
This time, North Korea presented the Unification Front Department director as the first contact, a choice that suggests Pyongyang’s nervousness.
Another unexpected fact is that the movements of Mr. X leaked.
North Korea must have been surprised as well.
When the first two summit meetings were being prepared, the preparations were carefully hidden. This time, the contact was made public right after it happened.
There could have been an error in terms of security, or the contact might not even have taken place. At any rate, Seoul seems to put little weight on the meeting.
A top secret issue would not have been revealed so easily. The Kim Yang-gon-Mr. X channel can now be considered blocked since it has no value after its revelation to the public.
The behind-the-scenes channels between nations are highly valuable. “Mr. Xs” can pull off especially miraculous feats when dealing with dictatorial regimes.
The inter-Korean relationship is a unique one. There is no reciprocal mission, but Seoul and Pyongyang are connected through a direct line.
It is inevitable that the president will designate a new Mr. X. But we need to establish procedures and a specialized agency for the purpose, so that people will understand when the details of such a meeting are made public.
The National Security Council and the Ministry of Unification need to become the key links. The Ministry of Unification inherited the bureau on inter-Korean talks from the National Security Planning Agency in 1980.
We need to impress upon Pyongyang that a summit has to be discussed at a ministerial-level meeting. It should be a meeting between the South Korean unification minister and the North Korean director of the Workers Party’s Unification Front Department, not a deputy director.
The issue of a summit meeting can be discussed among the ministers. That will mean the normalization of the inter-Korean relationship.
South Korea’s Mr. X is a system. And the Lee Myung-bak administration believes that it is working to pave the way. But sometimes, the level of formality determines the content.
*The writer is the foreign policy and security affairs editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Young-hwan