[Viewpoint] In a hole and still digging

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[Viewpoint] In a hole and still digging

Prospects for easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a breakthrough in North Korea relations became more distant after the bitter fallout from secret negotiations for an inter-Korean summit in Beijing. North Korea renewed its saber-rattling and fired several broadsides at the government, accusing it of begging for summit meetings and offering a condescending bribe.

A U.S. diplomat, in a briefing to the U.S. Congress after a recent visit to Pyongyang, indicated that South Korea was opposed to Washington’s tentative plans to donate food to North Korea. Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, said there were differences with the South Korean government over some issues. “They prefer we not provide food assistance,” he said.

Seoul has been demanding that Pyongyang apologize for deadly attacks on a South Korean naval ship and Yeonpyeong Island as a condition for renewing economic ties, aid and diplomatic talks. If Washington decides to go ahead with humanitarian aid, Seoul would be placed in an awkward position for remaining hard-headed and hard-hearted.

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said at an international security meeting in Singapore that Chinese officials were trying to persuade North Korea not to take risks. Even so, international circumstances appear to be developing in favor of North Korea.

And the international community may be losing patience with the stalemate on North Korean issues.

But our side has also been clumsy to the point of incompetence in seeking a breakthrough in the deadlock. Without prior consultations, President Lee Myung-bak announced out of the blue during a visit to Beijing that he wanted to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the international nuclear security meeting in Seoul next year if the latter was willing to foreswear his weapons of mass destruction.

Then Seoul sent working-level delegates from the Blue House, Unification Ministry, and National Intelligence Agency to Beijing for back-channel meetings with North Korean officials. The negotiations could have hardly succeeded, considering the mutual animosity and lack of communication following North Korea’s attacks on our naval warship and Yeonpyeong Island, which sent tensions on the peninsula to the most alarming levels since the war.

Former spy agency chief Lee Hu-rak’s secret visit to Pyongyang in 1972 proved that back-channel diplomacy can win the best results when it’s a one-on-one meeting between two powerful emissaries. Seoul fouled up by dispatching working-level officials to critical meetings that could have been a turning point in inter-Korean relations.

Even as the government was secretly trying to improve ties by scheduling an inter-Korean summit, the military was using portraits of Kim, his father and son for target practice. The series of fiascos underscores the government’s ineptitude in the fields of defense, security and foreign affairs, and especially in dealing with Pyongyang, whose erratic behavior should be very predictable to us by now.

The fallout will likely heighten tension amid unpredictable variables at home and abroad leading up to the end of 2012.

North Korea may turn more provocative as the Kim regime pushes forward with its second dynastic power succession and tries to meet the extravagant goal of being a powerful and prosperous state by next year, while South Korea and the United States will become preoccupied with presidential elections next year.

The government should place top priority on stabilizing inter-Korean relations and, at the same time, be prepared to strongly respond to any attack from North Korea.

Meanwhile, the foreign and security affairs teams should account for their aggravations of inter-Korean relations in the recent fiasco in Beijing. They have enraged the North Korean leadership.

President Lee Myung-bak must re-examine his policy and what measures he needs to take if he wants to remove the bottleneck in inter-Korean ties during the remainder of his term.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of international political science at Myongji University.

By Kim Kyung-soo
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