[Viewpoint] Hard-line policies affect us, too

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[Viewpoint] Hard-line policies affect us, too

Malaria is transmitted through the bite of the female anopheles mosquito. The disease infects 300 million to 500 million people every year and kills at least 1 million. Scientists have concluded that King Tutankhamen, the boy pharaoh, died at the age of 19 in 1324 B.C. because of multiple disorders from malaria infection. The World Health Organization lists malaria as the most life-threatening disease among six tropical infectious diseases.

This disease has recently hit the northern part of Gyeonggi. As of last week, 286 malaria cases have been reported in 10 cities and districts in the area, up 30 percent from the same period a year ago. The mosquito-borne disease is usually active until September. Quarantine officials have categorized Paju, Yeoncheon and Dongducheon as hazardous zones and five other cities and districts as potential malaria-risk zones.

The northern Gyeonggi area, sharing the border with North Korea, is vulnerable to malaria because the mosquitoes with malaria parasites come from the North. Without vector controls in North Korea, our quarantine efforts are limited.

The spread of malaria had been expected because South Korea has stopped all North-bound shipments of aid, including pesticides and malaria drugs, as part of the sanctions against North Korea following its attack against the naval vessel Cheonan in March.

Health authorities warned in April about a possible breakout of malaria along the border regions. Although they saw the disease coming, nothing could be done about it.

On June 24, the Unification Ministry belatedly permitted a local civilian group to send quarantine aid to North Korea, but shipments have not taken place because of procedural difficulties. Even if the aid is delivered, it will be too late to contain the disease. Any action should have taken place before May.

If the Unification Ministry had seriously considered preventing the spread of malaria from the North, it should not have stopped at approving a delivery of local aid, but instead should have sought support from international groups. From 2001 to last year, the government had been shipping anti-malaria supplies to North Korea via the World Health Organization. This aid protects our people as much as it does North Koreans.

Malaria is not the only adverse result from severed ties with North Korea. The government announced on May 24 that it would cease all inter-Korean trade.

The measure, though understandable, dealt a heavy blow to 800 small- and mid-sized companies whose business primarily involves trade with North Korea. It was motivated by revenge and generated the same adverse fallout as that suffered by the people who have been infected by malaria from the North.

The tardy response to the problems created also proved of little help. The government on July 26 announced it will offer special aid loans to the Kaesong firms to save them from possible bankruptcy. The loans, though cheaper than regular corporate loans, will nonetheless have to be repaid and it may have come too late.

The May announcement of sanctions against North Korea should have included help to our companies to compensate for the damage from the trade sanctions.

A government with common sense should have thought of its own people first before taking such drastic action. It is incompetent if it failed to map out contingency plans in advance and negligent in its duties if it chose to ignore these steps.

It should not have cut the government’s administrative staff in half at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. If the government feared security problems for our citizens, it should have pulled everyone out. No one seemed to have thought of the operational difficulties that would result from staff shortages.

Additional actions in this area came too late. In July, authorities allowed an increase of 80 additional administrative staff, which still amounts to less than one official per company. The increase offers little relief, and only aggravates traders’ frustrations.

We obviously cannot let North Korea walk free after killing 46 of our young sailors. It must be held accountable in one way or another. But authorities should have taken our interests into consideration before taking action. A strategy blinded by spite is shortsighted and irresponsible.

Authorities must consider ways to ease sanctions on North Korea in order to lessen damage to our side. North Korea should pay the price, but it must not come at the expense of our own people and companies.

The three ministers that proposed the May actions against North Korea have all been kept in Sunday’s sweeping cabinet reshuffle, suggesting the government is not ready to seek an exit from its current policy on North Korea. But it must remember that its hard-line policies are not only tormenting North Koreans.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

By Cho Dong-ho
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