[Viewpoint] South has the stronger summit hand

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[Viewpoint] South has the stronger summit hand

The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and North Korea established themselves as socialist states after division agreements in 1945. But East Germany differed from its Asian peer in many ways. First of all, it never invaded the neighboring state, killed ministers of the government on the other side, or detonated nuclear devices. Although under strict socialist doctrine and communist leadership, hereditary power succession or prison camps did not exist in East Germany. No one died of starvation. The state had also been flexible toward detente. In 1970, state heads of East and West Germany had their first historic summit in the East German town of Erfurt. Thousands of East Germans marched near the hotel where West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was staying, rallying “Willy! Willy!” Such a scene would be unimaginable in Pyongyang.

Because of the North’s implacability and inflexibility of its political system, a summit between the two Koreas underscores more drama than the German experience. Before the two German states were reunified in 1990, leaders of the two met on four occasions. The first and third meetings were held in the eastern zone and the second and fourth on the western side. The first summit meeting between a democratic and socialist state in the midst of the Cold War era seized the world’s attention. It was the first step - two years prior to American President Richard Nixon’s visit to China - in rooting out the socialist stronghold in Europe.

But its historic significance pales when compared to the summit meeting between the two Koreas given the scars of the physical war and ideological animosity the two hold. The setting on the Korean Peninsula is far different than the earlier on in Europe. The two protagonists are at polar ends of world history. One is a civilized society accomplished in industrialization and democratization and the other an impoverished, oppressed and underdeveloped state.

The first summit in 2000 was more emotional for South Koreans. They had been behind their North Korean peers for decades after the war. In 1973, President Park Chung Hee and members of his cabinet and secretaries watched a North Korean propaganda film at the security intelligence office. They were dumbfounded after watching the film on the North’s progress in petrochemical and steel industries. His economic aide recalled that when the lights went on, the ashtray next to the president’s seat was filled with cigarette butts.

The president had been chain-smoking on seeing the sight. But a few years later, the situation reversed. Today, the national income of the democratic South Korean society is 38 times more than that of the northern socialist state.

The three-year Korean War ended in 1953 without producing a definite winner. But South Korea gained a sure upper hand in the half-century battle of political systems. A summit between the two Koreas therefore is in fact a meeting between a victor and the defeated. North Korea would dispute such logic, claiming itself a mighty military power with nuclear weapons. But the North’s military power is no match to the South’s economic might and security capacity converged with the United States. There is no exit to the North’s troubles.

The South Korean leader representing the state that has triumphed in the battle of political systems has reason to take a commanding position when addressing a summit with his North Korean counterpart. The summits by past liberal administrations were disappointing. President Kim Dae-jung paid generous cash rewards to organize the first summit. President Roh Moo-hyun was a lame duck when he visited Pyongyang during the final months of his term. He would have hardly gained respect from the North Korean leader, having lost loyalty from much of his own population.

If a new summit takes place, President Lee Myung-bak would be the first conservative state leader from the South to meet the North Korean leader. Conservative predecessors had established a modern state in the South and accomplished security capability and economic prosperity. As a successor of such a legacy, President Lee should face Kim Jong-il with confidence and composure.

The summit can be instrumental in changing the North Korean regime. It would prove most pivotal to a state quickly running out of options to sustain its regime. To capitalize on the opportunity, Seoul authorities must make Kim Jong-il desire and fear meeting his South Korean counterpart. North Koreans are said to be more aggressive in pursuing a summit. They are that cornered right now. President Lee’s two years of policy restraint have worked.

Lee had initially said nuclear disarmament and the return of South Korean prisoners of war and kidnapped civilians would be at the top of the agenda for summit talks. There are signs that he may be relenting. He may be thinking of compromising on the agenda out of desire that the event takes place. What and how is as much as important as when. The meeting should be opportune, but more importantly, substantive.


*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin

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