New year for the two Koreas

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New year for the two Koreas

The year 2010 is the Lee Myung-bak administration’s third year in office, and it will likely serve as a test for inter-Korean relations.

North Korea in its annual New Year’s editorial, which is published in three state-run newspapers, expressed an intent to work toward better ties with its southern neighbor. In the editorial, North Korea also said it would help stabilize the lives of its workers.

On South Korea, the editorial said the state remains committed to improving inter-Korean ties according to the joint declarations signed on June 15, 2000 and Oct. 4, 2007, after summit meetings. It urged Seoul to do the same.

The unusually friendly tone of the New Year’s message reflects the state’s calculation that it needs the South’s support to solve its dire economic problems. Whatever the motive, the change in tone is in line with the one expressed by Seoul. President Lee is expected to discuss improving communication with Pyongyang in his New Year’s address, and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, in discussing the ministry’s agenda for the new year, promised to seek dialogue with the North via all possible channels including a summit. The two Koreas should use this momentum to end the last two years of stunted relations and move toward a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.

The major obstacle to improved relations between the two Koreas is the North’s nuclear weapons development. North Korea maintains that denuclearization and inter-Korean relations are two separate issues, while the South wants a resolution to the nuclear issue to come before any development of bilateral ties. We must retain our firm position on the North Korean nuclear issue, but do not necessarily have to link it to everything. We will be better positioned to resolve the nuclear issue once bilateral ties are strengthened through regular dialogue.

North Korea’s return to the six-party talks is crucial for any progress in inter-Korean relations as well as the nuclear predicament. The North in the editorial said its desire to establish a firmer peace system and attain denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiations is unchanged. This suggests that it, too, recognizes the imperative of the six-party platform, although it still appears to prioritize a peace treaty over denuclearization. Once North Korea recommits itself to the six-party talks, it can seek better relations with the U.S. and a new peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula within the multilateral framework.

South and North Korea together must keep watch on China. However, the North should try to resolve its problems before its reliance on China becomes too great to retract.

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