[Viewpoint] With new minister, a chance for peaceA hawkish minister of unification who emphasized principle and espoused a no-tolerance policy against North Korea’s provocations has been replaced by someone more dovish and pro-dialogue.
Although we cannot expect a sudden shift in North Korean policy with a new point man on Pyongyang, the timing of the replacement suggests a different approach. North Korea has been openly campaigning for renewed six-party talks, wanting to improve ties with South Korea to pave the way for normalized relations with the United States and the establishment of a peace treaty.
Other members of the six-party talks on disarming North Korea are all ready to recommit to the multilateral dialogue. Pyongyang and Washington have been building up meaningful contacts. They have set the stage for musical diplomacy by arranging a U.S. tour by the Pyongyang Philharmonic Orchestra before spring next year. Senior officials between the two countries will soon meet for the second time. Ethnic Koreans in the United States will be allowed to visit their separated families in North Korea.
China has been eager to reopen the talks for a long time. Russia has offered a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, too, with a lucrative business proposal of supplying natural gas through a pipeline across North Korea and into South Korea. The cabinet reshuffle raises expectations as it comes amid North Korea’s reconciliatory gestures.
Former Minister of Unification Hyun In-taek had steadfastly insisted that North Korea should first apologize for its attack on the Cheonan before any inter-Korean dialogue and humanitarian aid could take place. President Lee Myung-bak and his aides supported the idea.
The two Koreas nevertheless exchanged unofficial senior-level contacts to discuss a summit meeting, which ended without bearing any fruit. The secret meeting between South Korean presidential and intelligence officials in Shanghai with North Korean officials only brought humiliation and underscored the lack of sincerity on both sides when North Korean officials accused their South Korean counterparts of trying to bribe them.
Will the new minister, Yoo Woo-ik, make any difference? He said he would seek dialogue with flexibility while maintaining the government’s principles on North Korea. What is important is whether his fundamental perspective on inter-Korean relations is realistic and progressive. He believes South Korea should open the way for North Korea.
In other words, South Korea should make concessions within its limits of tolerance. The power of South Korea and North Korea is seriously unbalanced. Yet hard-liners demand quid pro quo exchange between the two Koreas. The weaker is usually easily hurt or hides its damaged pride. It should be the stronger party that makes the first approach and conciliatory efforts.
North Korea has a lot to spend on next year to prepare for the centennial anniversary of the birth of its national founder, Kim Il Sung, and to prepare for its much-publicized slogan of a strong nation. It needs money to afford national festivals, food and other necessities to hand out as gifts to its people. It desperately needs charity since it cannot afford those things alone. It must assure the international community that it is committed to peace through the six-party platform. Its senior officials have been meeting their South Korean and U.S. counterparts in Bali and Beijing as part of its effort.
Seoul and Washington demand Pyongyang stop its programs on enriching uranium and developing missiles as well as allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency into the country before restarting the six-party talks. U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations demanded specific actions from Pyongyang on relinquishing its nuclear weapons and warned that it could be further isolated if the regime continues to violate international agreements. He would have had stronger words for North Korea if not for the multilateral contacts with the country.
Seoul and Washington differ in their perspective on denuclearization. North Korea’s envoy to recent talks in Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, said Pyongyang would be presenting a solution package if the six-party talks open. North Korea, which has insisted that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes, could demand reinvestment in light fuel in return for ceasing its nuclear program.
The ongoing talks are the last chance for the Lee Myung-bak administration to improve inter-Korean relations. The government has been irresponsible with its policy of inaction under the pretext of strategic patience that has done nothing to denuclearize North Korea. There is no reason that the two leaders of the two Koreas cannot meet for a big agreement. It is the government’s last duty to set the stage for lasting peace.
*The writer is a senior editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie