[Viewpoint] Kim summit offer should be seriousBerlin stands as a historical monument for the peaceful unification of a divided country. It was why President Kim Dae-jung chose this symbolic stage to announce a new detente policy toward North Korea on March 9, 2000. The four-point Berlin Declaration epitomized the late president’s signature “Sunshine Policy,” envisioning engagement steps to first promote empathy and peace between the two Koreas and later pursue unification. Kim proposed direct aid to North Korea to build social infrastructure, reform the farming industry and hold an inter-Korean summit. Three months later, Kim visited Pyongyang for the first-ever meeting with between a South Korean president and the North Korean leader.
President Lee Myung-bak has emulated the former president by borrowing the Berlin stage to extend an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to attend an international Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul next year. His motive behind the proposal would be first to get momentum going to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea and guarantee regional peace. The invitation, whether Kim accepts or not, is also the president’s pronouncement that he is committed to join the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He may also want to seek a political breakthrough and score a victory overseas as he faces declining popularity with the public and politicians at home because of controversy over major state projects, savings bank scandals and the defeat of the ruling party in the recent by-elections.
If the reclusive and ailing Kim does land in Seoul, which would mark the first inter-Korean border crossing by a North Korean leader, it could serve as a tipping point to the long-stalled denuclearization process as well as boost Seoul-Pyongyang and Pyongyang-Washington relations. United States President Barack Obama and leaders of some 50 countries will attend the forum in Seoul, and the stage will offer a proper diplomatic debut for the secretive North Korean leader. Kim’s presence could imply North Korea’s interest in joining global endeavors for a nuclear-weapon-free world, improve the rogue state’s image, and open economic and diplomatic ties with other countries. The invitation to the Seoul summit could be a winning option for the Kim regime.
Pyongyang nevertheless cannot easily be taken with the proposal because of the strings attached. President Lee made it clear that North Korea must declare to the international community genuine and irrevocable disarmament of nuclear weapons in order to receive the formal invitation. The first obstacle would be delivering a formal admission and apology for the deadly attacks on a South Korean warship and Yeonpyeong Island. By asking for “sincerity,” President Lee is demanding North Korea’s apology, which is too risky and bitter for Kim to follow through on. The apology could undermine Kim’s authority over the military and the planned succession of his politically untested son. The stubborn leader, who enjoys god-like status in the North, could also not easily accept the invitation to an event hosted by enemy state even without any conditions attached. He may fear for his life if he goes to the South Korean capital after all the evil his regime has done to its brother nation.
Behind-the-scenes contact between the two Koreas to discuss the possibility of Kim’s visit to Seoul have already begun. Working-level meetings would have to decide the scope and details of North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization and its apology to South Korea. The two Koreas would have to coordinate who Kim could meet in Seoul. It won’t be easy to bargain with North Korea with little trust existing between the two countries. Yet the Blue House naively believes North Korea will jump at the chance for an all-inclusive conference because of the latter’s dire economic situation.
But if we take a moment to stand in Pyongyang’s shoes, Kim won’t easily believe President Lee is innocent and sincere in his offer. The president announced the plan timed with his Berlin visit without prior notice or consultation with North Korea. Pyongyang could be annoyed by President Lee’s snubbing of Kim Jong-il’s proposal for an inter-Korean summit at any time and without any conditions as relayed through former U.S. Presidnet Jimmy Carter after his Pyongyang visit. The North Korean media denounced the proposal as “provocative humbug” because President Lee failed to offer consideration to Pyongyang. An official at the Blue House said he was worried that Kim could steal the show from his South Korean host if he turned up at the event. Indeed, if the reclusive North Korean leader did make the conference his coming-out party, he and his regime would be the center of media and global attention. But it would be a price well worth paying. Regardless of the motive, the dice has been thrown. If Seoul is genuine about bringing Kim to Seoul, it must aggressively sell the plan to Pyongyang as risk-free. Otherwise, all this talk would be much ado about nothing.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie