[Viewpoint] Time is ripe for Lee-Kim meeting

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[Viewpoint] Time is ripe for Lee-Kim meeting

On more than one occasion, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has expressed admiration for South Korean President Park Chung Hee, who had cracked the whip to industrialize and modernize post-war South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s.

During the first inter-Korean summit with President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, Kim praised Park’s economic accomplishments and leadership style. He reiterated his eulogy when Park’s daughter Rep. Park Geun-hye visited Pyongyang two years later.

Kim particularly had good words for Park’s drive in developing the economy, Rep. Park said. The North Korean leader expressed a wish to pay respects to ex-president’s grave if he ever visits Seoul.

At that time Rep. Park was a strong, popular presidential candidate from the Grand National Party. Many suspected political calculation on Pyongyang’s part for inviting her ahead of the presidential elections.

But Kim probably did harbor admiration for the deceased South Korean president, who is credited with reversing the wealth gap between the two Koreas after the war. He may truly have wished to learn more about Park Chung Hee’s rags-to-riches magic potion and how to apply it to his own impoverished state.

Inter-Korean relations have long been in a deep freeze. The North has lately been warming toward the South, but President Lee Myung-bak remains unimpressed. The MB style of leadership based on practicality strangely fails to apply to North Korean policy. Some blame this on the host of hawks surrounding the president.

President Lee has been consistent on North Korean policy, making it clear that he will not bargain on aid or hold an showy summit meeting unless the North makes undeniable moves towards denuclearization. His clear-cut stance that the South will no longer tolerate the North’s erratic commitment to nuclear talks has received cheers from conservatives.

But inter-Korean relations cannot be abandoned to gridlock for long. Hard-line pundits advise Seoul not to waver from its current tough stance, considering the unpredictability and instability of the Pyongyang regime due to Kim’s failing health without a definite heir at the helm. It is true that the North suffers from years of poverty on top of international trade sanctions and has implemented a sweeping currency revaluation to rein in inflation and individual market practices. But to suspect that the North is on the verge of collapse is to exaggerate. This is a state that remained intact even when thousands of North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s. The scenario that North Korea may crumble at a time when the income of 38 of its residents barely matches that of one South Korean is nightmarish.

We may have to be fully wary of a possible apocalyptic demise, but to just wait around for that doomsday scenario to arrive puts all Korean people at risk. Unification should be our ultimate goal, but in the meantime we must work steadily on various exchanges to narrow the gap and maintain peaceful coexistence.

With the North pushed into a corner, now is the best time to offer our hand and seek a breakthrough. Considering the fragility of Kim’s health, we must attain some progress in bilateral ties while he is still in power. We may be without a negotiating partner if the North is embroiled in a power struggle and it may be years before bilateral ties normalize again. The Dear Leader may be a mythical cult figure in the North, but to the South, he is the only practical negotiating partner. We must cement ties with the North’s inner circle before the era of post-Kim chaos dawns.

We therefore should draw up a more ambitious action plan. The time is ripe for another summit and the meeting can be regarded with confidence because of the strong faith the conservative population has in the incumbent government. The last two summit meetings led by liberal administrations despite their historical significance failed to receive their due accolades because of skepticism by the public.

Conservatives accused the governments of having gained nothing from their generous economic rewards and the meetings ended with mutual bitterness rather than trust. Many believe the incumbent conservative government won’t easily give into its Pyongyang counterpart.

President Lee had been a promising pupil of the Park Chung Hee school of industrialization, and the North’s ruler may be interested in the entrepreneur-turned-president. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Professor Victor Cha, who served as President George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korean affairs, said Kim does not like politicians, but is interested in MB’s business background.

We can expect something different from previous summits when hot-tempered Kim and cool-headed Lee sit down together.

A breakthrough in inter-Korean relations may bode well for President Lee when chairing the G-20 Summit later in the year. He should seriously consider meeting Kim.

*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Heo Nam-chin

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