Yet another flip-flop

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Yet another flip-flop

North Korea is again baring its teeth against South Korea, making an about-face from previous months of conciliatory gestures. In a recent statement by the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee broadcast by the country’s official mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea threatened to jettison all joint-venture tour programs unless the South restarts package tours to Mount Kumgang in April.

North Korean officials recently told a visiting South Korean that Pyongyang blames Seoul authorities for condoning an anti-North Korean campaign after four South Korean nationals illegally entered the country, and hinted that their detention will likely be prolonged.

North Korea habitually turns hostile against South Korea ahead of the annual joint military exercise with the United States in March. The chain of incidents may be a part of the ritual. But its threat to scrap joint-venture tourism programs suggests Pyongyang may resort to intimidation to bulldoze and resolve the stalled business ventures with South Korea. The North had maintained belligerence against the South in the early months of last year as it isolated itself from the international community by proceeding with a nuclear test fire. In August it suddenly sought peace by sending a high-profile delegation to attend the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung. Senior officials renewed inter-Korean dialogue, even discussing a possible summit.

But the North, currently in dire financial straits after almost a year under trade sanctions, began to lose patience as Seoul officials demanded a sincere commitment to safety concerns and nuclear disarmament to necessitate resumption of major aid programs and business ventures. As it looks now, bilateral relations appear to be in for another round of gridlock.

North Korea’s erratic commitment to inter-Korean issues - with a sole focus on financial aid from the South - hampers prospects for a sustainable longer-term relationship between the two states. The North cannot expect from South Korea the generous aid of the past without being willing to discuss sensitive issues such as the nuclear problem and a peace treaty. It is the North that should alter its attitude.

Our government must be cool-headed and discreet in dealing with the North. It must anticipate volatility in bilateral relations unless the North’s approach to the South fundamentally changes. But it must keep open the doors for talks and avoid heightening tension in the region. Our side must display flexibility so that whatever the mood between the two countries may be, the South Korean leader can meet with his North Korean counterpart whenever he is ready to talk out the differences.
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