[Viewpoint] Better inter-Korean ties essentialSigns have emerged that Korean Peninsula affairs will change dramatically. Voices worldwide are urging that the stalled six-party nuclear talks resume. The two Koreas’ Red Cross societies will meet in Kaesong tomorrow to discuss the stalled family reunions. The South, through the Red Cross, is also expected to provide rice aid to the North.
It was only days ago that concerns had been raised on the Korean Peninsula about the possible return of Cold War-style confrontation - that South Korea and the United States will face-off against North Korea and China. Following the sinking of the Cheonan in March, military tensions on the peninsula escalated.
Compared to that feared situation, however, there are many signs of change. The changes are particularly significant regarding frozen inter-Korean ties.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there has been a turning point. After all, the interests and demands of the two Koreas, the United States and China have aligned.
South Korea’s priority is hosting the G-20 Summit successfully in November. To this end, the prerequisite is easing the military tensions between the two Koreas. More South Koreans are feeling tired of the frozen inter-Korean ties.
The Lee Myung-bak administration, therefore, has had no choice but to improve relations with North Korea. South Koreans may feel confused about the sudden changes in the situation, but the government will continue to gradually improve inter-Korean ties step by step.
As for North Korea - whatever its true intentions may be - it knows that it, too, needs to improve ties with the South.
The North recently made a rare offer to hold family reunions, something that the South cannot resist. The next step would be asking the South to send a large amount of rice aid. (It has become practice now to involve food and fertilizer aid with family reunions in one package.)
The North’s change in attitude indicates its desperation after severe floods damaged much of its crops. Furthermore, to successfully hold the third Workers’ Party delegates’ conference - aimed at achieving the third-generation power succession - the North urgently needs to stabilize the people’s livelihoods.
North and South Korea’s interests have also aligned with those of the United States, which has demanded that the two Koreas’ relationship be improved as a precondition for resuming six-party talks. To that end, the family reunion offer was an effective way to respond positively to U.S. demands.
The United States believes that without improving inter-Korean relations, the six-party talks would be meaningless. Washington also worries that the military tensions on the peninsula will evolve into a strained relationship between the United States and China.
Yet China, too, has continuously demanded the six-party talks to resume, pressuring the North and the international community.
At the Aug. 27 China-North Korea summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il expressed his desire to go back to the six-party talks. It was prompted by a strong demand from Chinese President Hu Jintao.
With the four major players in the Korean Peninsula saga more or less on the same page, the changes on the Korean Peninsula present an important opportunity for North Korea. How Pyongyang handles these changes going forward is crucial for the future of the North Korean regime.
North Korea’s realistic goals - regime survival, stable power succession and securing large-scale outside assistance to rebuild its failed economy - won’t be achieved through its nuclear brinkmanship, a reality the North has faced since the start of the Obama administration.
So it is time for North Korea to show sincerity in the nuclear talks. Without demonstrating true intention to give up nuclear arms, the six-party talks won’t succeed. The North should also accept the South’s proposal of holding family reunions regularly in return for massive food aid.
The North’s acceptance of the South’s proposal will at least create room to maneuver for Seoul. When routine family reunions are agreed to, won’t it be possible to resume tours to Mount Kumgang in time for the G-20 Summit? Again, both countries’ interests are more aligned than it may appear.
But the onus is on the South Korean government as well. It needs to approach inter-Korean ties and the resumption of six-party talks with a more open attitude. No matter what the reasons are, the North’s offer to hold family reunions is an opportunity that the South must never miss. Improving inter-Korean relations is at stake.
The South should also actively follow the currents of international affairs to prepare for the resumption of six-party talks. The denuclearization talks are likely to be resumed in the fall, based on various circumstances.
Right now, Seoul must make a key strategic choice to handle the Cheonan sinking and the six-party talks separately. There is no reason for Seoul to restrain its approaches.
Precious opportunities to improve inter-Korean relations and resume six-party talks are here. The two Koreas must handle this critical moment with flexible, and yet energetic attitudes.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.
By Kim Yong-hyun