[Viewpoint] What’s this talk about change?

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[Viewpoint] What’s this talk about change?

The government’s outline of North Korea policy for the new year, which centered on prompting changes from within the reclusive nation, comes across as vain and perilous. It reveals an overconfident ambition to accelerate unification by shaking up Pyongyang’s regime. What it comes down to is a vision of absorbing North Korea, but without any specific action plan. Anticipating social unrest that would trigger an implosion and turn into unification can hardly be called a realistic plan.

There are muffled signs of frustration among North Korean citizens following the disastrous currency revaluation and crackdown on private market activities. It is President Lee Myung-bak who first spoke about these signs. In a meeting with the Presidential Committee on Social Cohesion on Nov. 23, the president said critical changes were being seen among North Koreans and that the Pyongyang regime won’t be able to contain them.

He made similar comments during a visit to Malaysia on Dec. 9 and predicted that unification was not that far off. The Unification Ministry supported the president’s comments by saying that prompting change within North Korea was its key policy direction, suggesting the government may have intelligence on the probability of a collapse inspired by social changes.

We have no choice but to question the credibility of this theory. Radio Free Korea and other small radio stations run by North Korean defectors have been reporting signs of an attitude change among impoverished North Koreans. The regions near the North Korean border with China also generate positive news for the South Korean government. But those unconfirmed comments and reports merely reinforce the South Korean authorities’ hopes and wishful thoughts.

Even if we assume there are meaningful changes going on in North Korea, we have no realistic role to play in causing or sustaining them. We cannot stir North Koreans to revolt against their leaders through propaganda balloons and loudspeakers. And anyway, if South Korea was to stimulate a social implosion, it would do so surreptitiously, not as a publicly announced campaign.

If unification through absorbing North Korea is the goal, it would mean the Lee Myung-bak administration is throwing aside the president’s signature policy toward the North, which was a grand bargain for North Korea to denuclearize and open up its society, after which South Korea would give enough aid and economic development to bring per capita income in the North up to $3,000 within 10 years. To design a policy on North Korea around fuzzy expectations for an internal collapse is tantamount to lying around and waiting for unification to drop in our laps. We have to question the conceptual and strategic mindset of the Unification Ministry.

Moreover, the Unification Ministry appears to have misread the president’s mind. President Lee’s policy on North Korea employs both a carrot and a stick. While floating the probability of an internal shake-up, he proposed a solution to the nuclear problem through six-party talks and left the door open for dialogue with North Korea. South Korea must tread carefully with a policy mix of engagement and pressure in view of the clamorous movement among the four powers over the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island.

Denuclearizing North Korea is the top priority and the six-nations platform devoted to that goal would have to be reactivated. Washington wants the two Koreas to talk ahead of the six-party negotiations. North Korea has been calling for renewed dialogue between the two Koreas. But the Unification Ministry’s new policy can undermine relations with both the United States and China.

Before resuming inter-Korean dialogue, the security front must be impeccable. That is the hard lesson learned from the tragic events of the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling. Once security is covered, we, with a national income 37 times greater than North Korean’s, have leeway to be generous toward North Korea. Adhering to a hawkish stance won’t help ease tension in the region.

The Unification Ministry fails to see the short cut of how to shake the North Korean regime. Some 20,000 North Korean defectors live hard lives in South Korea. To stir North Korean citizens, they must live well and relay their success stories across the border. If North Koreans find happiness in their new life here, it would be many times more effective and pervasive than thousands of propaganda balloons or endless loudspeakers.

The Unification Ministry should stay in tune with all foreign affairs and avoid provoking North Korea and China. Instead it should concentrate on coming up with realistic measures. It must decipher whether the calls for renewed inter-Korean dialogue via North Korean mouthpieces and organizations are sincere gestures of reconciliation. It should not brush them aside as an ill-motivated campaign to divert the attention of the South Korean people. Our people are not that foolish. The Unification Ministry must recast its policies within the geopolitical, historical and broad international context.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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