[Viewpoint] Lee needs to get serious on dialogue

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[Viewpoint] Lee needs to get serious on dialogue

North Korea has been nagging South Korea for renewed dialogue since early this year. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stopped in Seoul after a visit to Pyongyang carrying a verbal message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il desiring a summit with President Lee Myung-bak.

What Pyongyang really wanted was direct talks with Washington to seek diplomatic ties, but the latter set the condition that the two Koreas hold talks first. It is why North Korea aggressively sought talks with South Korea as a stepping stone to an invitation to Washington and also for aid to finance the country’s extravagant preparations for a new North Korean look in time for the centennial of North Korean founder and “Eternal Leader” Kim Il Sung’s birth next year.

But North Korea abruptly changed its mind and spoiled the reconciliatory mood by exposing closed-door discussions in Beijing with South Korean officials over an inter-Korean summit. North Korea wouldn’t have turned the tables simply out of whim.

First, it may have been upset by South Korea’s persistence in getting a formal apology for the deadly attacks on the Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island.

Second, Pyongyang reportedly was annoyed by a report that photos of the Kims have been used as targets in firing practice by South Korean reserve soldiers, which could be regarded as blasphemy considering the neardeity status of the Kim dynasty in the North. The mood of North Korea’s leadership would have turned hostile toward South Korea.

Third, North Korean leader Kim reportedly has been put off by the fact that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had been well-informed about the secret inter-Korean contacts during his visit to Beijing. Wen had in advance met with South Korean President Lee in Tokyo. North Korean leadership tends to be proud and is particularly touchy about others leaking key information before it makes announcements.

Seoul government officials say our demand for an apology is the biggest reason for North Korea’s about-turn on inter-Korean dialogue. But the opposition camp blames the Kim photo target practice. In 1997, when South Korean workers at the construction site of the light water reactor tore Kim Jong-il’s picture from the party newspaper, Pyongyang hit the ceiling and the entire project almost broke down.

During a Universiad sports game in Daegu in 2003, North Korean athletes and team members panicked when they saw a welcome placard of their leader shaking hands with President Kim Dae-jung that was soaking in the rain and they hastily took it down in tears. Displays of loyalty and competition to win points with the leader tends to increase during power transition periods. Kim Jong-il has pledged to hand the crown to his third and youngest son, Jong-un.

North Korean delegates would have expected South Korea to soften its stance on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island when they agreed to meet in Beijing. But to their disappointment, South Korean officials demanded a more explicit apology than Pyongyang’s suggestion of a mutually face-saving apology — in which South Korea announces that North Korea has apologized and North Korea later responds that it has not. Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security adviser to President Lee, flew in to join the talks, but both parties failed to break the stalemate.

North Korean officials rejected South Korea’s offer of cash to subsidize the preparatory meetings, saying they will accept it if progress is made. The fiasco eventually ended with North Korea’s whistle-blowing, claiming South Korea tried to buy them off to achieve an inter-Korean summit without any discussions on nuclear or summit issues. There are even rumors that the North Korean delegates were reprimanded when they returned to Pyongyang.

Now we hear speculation that an inner split is brewing in the National Defense Commission. A government source added that details about the behind-the-scenes inter-Korean dialogue were leaked from the NDC as a result from an internal power struggle within the senior defense level.

The NDC is Pyongyang’s top decision- making organization headed by Kim Jong-il. The claims that someone within the NDC dared to spill the beans about the secret inter-Korean contacts without endorsement from Kim appear to be farfetched. The prime cause of the fiasco over inter- Korean dialogue lies with the diplomatic ineptness on the part of South Korea, and talk of an inner power struggle is a lame excuse for the failed talks.

Everything seems to go from bad to worse for President Lee. His administration is engulfed with corruption scandals and political setbacks. It had hoped to see a breakthrough in North Korean affairs, but its bid only backfired because of the inflexibility and clumsiness of his aides.

But President Lee should not give up. North Korea’s reliance on China in economic affairs has reached alarming levels. North Korea can go on expanding nuclear and missile arms without any international interference. There is no other way but for South Korea to signal reconciliation by offering humanitarian aid and renew talks with North Korea.

So far, the apology-denial formula appears to be the most realistic option in getting past the bottleneck. The two nations will never be able to seriously talk if one insists that the other apologize. The North’s Kim also should stop expecting accommodation and forgiveness from Seoul — as was done by previous governments — and concentrate on doing something substantial in the present.

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

By Kim Young-hie
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